Published June 14, 2012
By Jill Capuzzo
PHONES in the offices of Morris Habitat for Humanity have been ringing off the hook lately as town officials throughout Morris County have been seeking its help in spending money. The same has been true for other nonprofit housing groups in New Jersey, as local governments scramble to use up affordable-housing funds before they are forfeited to the state.
“Knowing they’re going to lose the money, towns are calling us up and saying: ‘We’ve got money we need to put toward affordable housing. How can you help?’ ” said Blair Schleicher Bravo, the executive director of Morris Habitat for Humanity. She has recently been contacted by 10 of the county’s 39 municipalities, including the town of Randolph, which granted the organization $1.3 million to build 25 affordable homes.
In one month’s time, 221 municipalities throughout the state face losing hundreds to millions of dollars each, if the money has not yet been spent on affordable-housing projects within their borders. They are up against a deadline set in 2008, when the latest phase of the Fair Housing Act went into effect, giving local governments four years to spend the funds.
As of June 5, a total of $161.3 million had yet to be spent at the local level, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the group that has been overseeing the state’s affordable-housing program in lieu of the Council on Affordable Housing — which since last year has been an abolition target of Gov. Chris Christie. (His effort was thwarted by an appeals court in March, and this month the State Supreme Court refused to hear the appealed case, though other court challenges are still pending.)
The money must either be spent or committed by July 17. But housing advocates say the affordable-housing program has been in such disarray in recent years that it has been difficult to determine what projects qualify and what constitutes a commitment. According to them, the rules were never spelled out, and the housing council, with its uncertain status, was neither reviewing nor approving projects.
“It’s as if the governor’s office set them up to fail,” said Staci Berger, the director of policy and advocacy for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a coalition of housing advocates. “They never set the definitions, then they said, ‘You never spent the money.’ And now they’re saying, ‘We’re going to take the money.’ ”
Only recently, as the deadline looms, have proposals been getting approved by the Department of Community Affairs — but with language that indicates decisions may not be final, said Adam M. Gordon, a staff attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill. Such uncertainty has made some towns hesitant to sign on to projects.
“Towns don’t know what their obligation is,” said Michael Cerra, an analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “So if they make a significant commitment of money without knowing if this is going to meet their obligation, they’re taking a risk.”
Legislation is currently being considered to extend the deadline by two years. Unless it passes, however, the state will make good on the seizure plan, and the money will be deposited in the New Jersey Affordable Housing Trust Fund, to be “allocated pursuant to the law,” according to a written statement from a representative for the Department of Community Affairs. Skeptics say that the state programs these funds are destined for are already budgeted, and that this money will be used to help balance the state budget.
“This is possibly the most blatant move by the state to wrest control, and money, from municipalities,” said Francis Womack III, the mayor of North Brunswick. “Anything the state can get their hands on, they will.”
Affordable housing has been a battleground in New Jersey since 1975, when the State Supreme Court found local zoning patterns unconstitutional and obligated towns to increase their quotas of such housing. Commonly referred to as the Mount Laurel decision, the ruling generated a program that has over the years sought to overcome impediments to this goal, establishing the housing council as the enforcement agency, and creating a way for towns to raise money for new housing through the collection of fees from local builders. Those funds are the ones that the state — now facing budget challenges of its own — is threatening to seize, citing the four-year deadline established in 2008.
In early June, North Brunswick still had $7.8 million to spend, according to the state. Mayor Womack says the town is contributing $5.25 million to the $10.25 million purchase of a 183-unit apartment complex that has been wracked with crime and mismanagement. A private development company paid the balance, and will provide an additional $16 million to renovate the apartments, which, under an agreement with the town, will be deed-restricted as affordable housing.
Princeton Borough recently bought three foreclosed or vacant homes and deeded them to Princeton Community Housing to turn into affordable-housing units. Hamilton Township has signed on with HomeFront, a social services agency that develops and manages low-income housing projects throughout Mercer County, to add 12 affordable-housing units to an ongoing project there.
“We went knocking on doors of towns telling them, ‘Come see us, we’ll spend your money,’ ” said Celia Bernstein, Homefront’s chief financial officer. “And luckily, that kind of worked.”
With $11.7 million, Marlboro in Monmouth County has the largest quantity of unspent money. Noting that it “is not anti-affordable housing,” Mayor Jon Hornik said an acceptable plan had been submitted to the state.
“By July 17,” he said, “we’ll have all our trust funds allocated, plus we’re contemplating a lawsuit against the state because we view it as an unfair taking.”