In defiance of New Jersey Supreme Court, panel does not adopt affordable housing rules

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TRENTON, New Jersey — New Jersey's Council on Affordable Housing on Monday rejected new rules proposed by Gov. Chris Christie's administration for how many homes each community should have within the financial reach of lower-income residents.

The move defies both the governor and the state Supreme Court he's often at odds with over affordable housing.

Housing advocates are glad the rules were rejected, but that won't last long unless the council adopts a more palatable set of rules soon.

New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that the state's towns could not use zoning laws to exclude the poor. Ever since then, how such housing should be provided has been a conundrum that has played out in the Legislature and, mostly, the courts.

Local officials generally resent their state-imposed obligations. After Christie came into office in 2010, he tried to dissolve the Council on Affordable Housing.

But the state's top court ruled he does not have that authority, and also that the council had to adopt rules to replace the set that expired 15 years ago. The latest deadline for action was by next month.

Under pressure from the court, Christie's administration introduced a proposal in April.

Advocates for towns, the poor, the environment and other causes have universally derided aspects of them.

Fair Share Housing Center says the state failed to incorporate incentives for building lower-cost homes for people with physical or developmental disabilities and also neglected low-income rental housing. They also said they had found technical problems, such as towns being listed in the wrong counties and one town that was given no affordable housing obligation apparently only because its name had been changed.

The New Jersey branch of the Sierra Club is troubled by a provision that allows development of nine market-rate homes for each affordable one as a giveaway to land developers.

Members of COAH on Monday agreed that there were some problems in the proposal.

They were faced with a dilemma: Vote for flawed rules or defy the state's top court.

Three of the six members voted to set aside the plan for two months so it could be updated. But that didn't have enough votes to pass.

The motion to adopt the plan was also rejected by the same 3-3 vote. All three members who voted for a delay voted against adopting the rules.

Most members of the council, including its chairman, state Community Development Commissioner Richard Constable, declined to comment.

Suzanne Walters, a council member and the mayor of Stone Harbor, was an exception.

"What it means is we don't have any rule and we've violated the Supreme Court order," she said. "I don't think the Supreme Court is going to look very kindly on that."

She said the council members all agree, both that action must be taken soon and that the rules proposal needs work.

But neither she nor other board members had a timeline for action yet.

Adam Gordon, a lawyer at Fair Share Housing Center, was not sure whether his organization, which has often filed lawsuits over affordable housing, would take legal action now.

"The board did the right thing by rejecting deeply flawed rules," he said. "There needs to be some path forward."

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