Specifics needed on housing plan



Gov. Chris Christie announced this week he has submitted a plan to the state Legislature that would abolish the state Council on Affordable Housing by the end of August. But it isn’t at all clear what he intends to replace it with.

The Legislature has until Aug. 28 to decide whether to support or reject the plan. Given how vague it is, lawmakers should insist that it be further fleshed out. Or they should flesh it out themselves.

The phrase “abolish COAH” in and of itself sounds ominous. Christie has never been a fan of COAH.

Right now, all anyone has to go on is the governor’s six-page “reorganization” plan under which COAH’s functions would be transferred to the Department of Community Affairs. It says the plan advances the goals of the Housing Opportunity Task Force report, which itself is light on details and long on rhetoric, using such phrases as “implementation of a system that makes affordable housing a natural by-product of normal development.” The obvious problem there is that affordable housing often is not “a natural by-product of normal development,” which is why COAH was formed in the first place.

COAH has become cumbersome, even at times contradictory, but the concept of municipalities providing their fair share of affordable housing, mandated by the state Supreme Court in its Mount Laurel decisions, must not be lost.

One immediate red flag in Christie’s proposal is its full-throated support by Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, who cheered Christie’s proposal. It was Lesniak who last year sponsored the ill-fated bill that would have abolished COAH.

The bill was so flawed that the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services concluded it might not have passed constitutional muster. It said Lesniak’s bill failed to satisfy the Mount Laurel decision’s mandate that regional and statewide affordable housing be taken into account when a town’s fair share of affordable housing units were calculated because it allowed towns to set their own obligations.

Whatever form COAH — by that name or any other —ultimately takes, the overriding goal of reform should be developing a plan that increases the amount of affordable housing in this state. Every municipality should be required to provide its fair share, and a mechanism should be in place to ensure compliance.

Any attempt to dismantle COAH will surely be challenged in the courts. So the governor and the Legislature must give any alternative to it due deliberation.

Any reorganization should be aimed at addressing COAH’s weaknesses, not relieving the state’s municipalities of the obligation to provide low- and moderate-income housing within their boundaries or skirting the state constitution.