Two opposing forces in the statewide debate over affordable housing obligations—Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (D-37) and Fair Share Housing Center attorney Kevin Walsh—went head to head along with three other panelists in a livestreamed debate May 31 on how best to fulfill affordable housing obligations.
While not directly debating each other, the two panelists joined a roundtable panel to discuss the state’s affordable housing issue—a topic roiling municipalities statewide and an apparent thorn in the side of local officials.
Most municipalities have chosen to settle for fear of losing a so-called builder’s remedy lawsuit—a lawsuit from a developer that could lead to court approval of a high density development that a town cannot legally stop without Superior Court immunity due to ongoing local settlement negotiations or an approved affordable housing plan.
While most Pascack and Northern valley communities have settled affordable housing obligations, some are engaged in legal negotiations and some legal battles—each trying to get the smallest affordable housing obligation possible for their community.
Since 2015 most area municipalities have filed declaratory judgments with state Superior Courts to submit a settlement plan, and generally have been working with a court-appointed special master, local attorney, and intervenor attorneys to develop them.
Recently, River Vale, Park Ridge, and Haworth have been going through increasingly public efforts to come to agreement on settlement plans with intervenors, and all have been in the public eye.
While Park Ridge Mayor Keith Misciagna is the most visible and vocal opponent to what he calls “high density overdevelopment,” both Haworth Mayor Thomas Ference and River Vale Mayor Glen Jasionowski have spoken out against the Fair Share Housing Center and the court system in place to force affordable housing on towns.
During a nearly two-hour discussion, which ended with both Walsh and Schepisi getting in last licks about the substance and tone of the affordable housing debate, both used the forum to make cases for the future of New Jersey’s affordable housing obligations from opposite views. The debate was produced by NJ Spotlight, a not-for-profit news site.
Bullying and racist charges
Schepisi has been outspoken on the issue for several years—leading a charge recently to take the issue away from superior courts and get legislators to act on reform bills she helped sponsor in 2018.
She previously alleged Walsh used bullying tactics to get towns to build affordable units and also that Walsh labels officials and legislators who oppose the current system for providing affordable housing “racist”—a charge she mentioned again in calling for more open discussion of the issue.
“There is an absolute need for affordability, there’s an absolute need to do it smartly. And we can’t shut down the conversation by just saying because somebody wants to see something done maybe better or differently, therefore racial segregation. It’s a total B.S. response, it’s something we need to be honest about and we need to be able to move forward together,” Schepisi said in concluding her remarks.
Several times during the discussion, Walsh noted that affordable housing creates living and social opportunities for low-income communities, which include many African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, to move into areas not normally accessible to them.
Throughout the discussion, other panelists spoke about the history of affordable housing and Mount Laurel decisions in New Jersey, how the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) dissolved due to a 16-year period of legal battles and non-action, and how many affordable homes might be built between 2015 and 2025 and possible alternatives to a court-supervised process.
Walsh said he anticipated about 50,000 affordable units being built over the 10-year period.
“We had a horrible time on affordable housing from 1999 to 2015. That’s in part because municipalities chose to exclude and were allowed to do so,” he said.
He noted the state could put together an annual affordable housing report to keep residents updated on settlement negotiations and said of about 350 towns involved in court negotiations, nearly 290 had settled obligations through 2025.
Another 50–60 were in negotiations to settle, he said. The third round of affordable obligations covers a “gap period” from 1999–2015 and 2015–2025.
Schepisi called for a regional and not local approach to moving forward with affordable obligations. She cited Bergen County’s most densely populated land area, overcrowded public transportation already at capacity, and noted to build high-density housing “and hope that it all works out is doing a disservice to everybody.”
During several points, Walsh noted how most families in the low-income or very low-income categories were African American, and admonished Schepisi for trying to make affordable housing a solution for other social problems it was not intended to solve.
Schepisi noted the discussion on affordable housing needs to include individuals struggling with “generational poverty” as well, such as a single mother getting divorced and wanting to keep her child in local schools, or an individual who needs transitional help, or rehabilitating properties for people with special needs.
Walsh said Schepisi’s call for affordable housing to solve other social problems would continue to “permit the wide exclusion of families that are lower income from suburbia” and said that the current court-ordered affordable process is providing more housing for people with disabilities and special needs than previously was available.
Walsh said for generations state law and local zoning perpetuated racial and economic segregation.
“Given that, we need to ask ourselves: Are we a state that believes in segregation and what comes with it? And are we willing to perpetuate the extremely high rates of racial and economic segregation in our cities? And if we are, then yeah, go ahead and meet the needs of everyone else and exclude the lower income families from suburbia,” he said.
Walsh noted Judge Mary Jacobson’s 2018 West Windsor decision on affordable housing obligations where she recommended a methodology and calculated a statewide obligation of 155,000 affordable units by 2025.
He said the court-mediated affordable system deciding local obligations “in reality is a system that has been set up to substantially reduce that number.”
Again he noted he estimated 50,000 homes to be built statewide by 2025.
Schepisi said if those 50,000 homes are built by developers with a “density bonus,” the builder is permitted to construct four or five market-rate units for every affordable unit, “and that that makes little sense.”
Generally, for new rental properties 15 percent of units are affordable and market-rate units have a 20 percent set-aside for affordable units. Schepisi said 250,000 to 300,000 homes likely would be added to towns to build the 50,000 affordable units.
Schepisi said New Jersey, the densely populated state, leads the nation in residents departing for other states, has relatively high property taxes, a minimal [0.3 percent] population growth, and a high home foreclosure rate.”
Given those trends, she said, “high density housing makes no sense when you look at the collective picture.”
She noted how affordable units are being built “on the last remaining farm” in Dumont while longtime residents pay higher taxes and may lose their homes.
“We’re operating in this kind of bubble where we’re not having the smart conversations of how to do it better,” she said.
The discussion was kicked off by a presentation from Peter Reinhart, a director of Kislak Real Estate Institute at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, who discussed the origins of affordable housing.
He suggested a task force of public, private, and non-profit sector leaders to create a statewide housing policy and a newly reconstituted state planning commission to create an updated State Development and Redevelopment Plan.
Most recently, legal battles have played out in municipalities with pressure being applied by a powerful intervenor, Fair Share Housing Center, who was appointed to intervene by the state Supreme Court.
While a September trial date has been set for Park Ridge should negotiations with Fair Share fail to resolve its affordable obligations, most officials have been unwilling to take on Fair Share Housing Center in court.
River Vale ‘angered’
Following four years of negotiations, River Vale has come up with an affordable housing settlement local officials are clearly not happy with.
Mayor Glen Jasionowski wrote residents a week ago decrying a lack of local options and a Sept. 6 deadline to comply or potentially lose immunity from a builder’s remedy lawsuit.
“I am so angered and upset that the state is putting our township in this position. If we do not comply, we face huge legal costs and the chance that the court will order us to do this or more. We have done so much over the past two decades to provide affordable housing in a way that blends with our town,” he wrote.
He added, “Mayor Blundo had the vision to address this issue and we would be in much worse shape if he hadn’t taken it seriously. No one has been able to stop Fair Share. You can see all around us that there are giant developments being built in each town, and it’s because we are all being forced to follow the State’s demands on housing.”
These include a 249-unit development at Edgewood Country Club, including 24 affordable units; rezoning to protect the country club’s remaining 18-hole course; senior housing on Cedar Lane; rezoning of Florentine Gardens/Valley Brook Country Club; building of an adult care home on Cedar Lane (under construction); development of 36 affordable units on the former Meskers site on Rivervale Road and overlay zoning for some commercial buildings to allow second-floor affordable apartments should buildings be redeveloped.
“This is the least amount of development the court would accept for River Vale. Should we not comply, this would put us back to having to provide the 500-plus affordable units required by the state and Fair Share,” Jasionowski wrote.
He said the “worse-case scenario” is that the state could require River Vale to build 2,486 affordable and market rate units.
“How they expect this to be reasonable in River Vale is absurd. … I believe we have a moral obligation to build affordable housing, but in a way that fits our township,” he added.
Haworth ‘balancing act’
A draft settlement agreement between Haworth and Fair Share Housing Center—set for a fairness hearing June 20 in Superior Court—establishes the borough’s current obligations at 223 units—to be addressed through “inclusionary developments,” overlay zones for future affordable housing and ordinances mandating affordable set-asides in new developments.
An inclusionary development includes market-rate units for sale or rent, plus generally a set-aside of 15 percent of rental units and 20 percent of for-sale units for affordable housing.
While 223 affordable units are proposed to settle its third round (1999–2025) affordable housing obligations, the settlement agreement notes the borough has a “realistic development potential” (RDP) of 28 units, or units to actually be built between now and 2025.
“We really had to balance the mandatory requirements to offer affordable housing with the goal of not changing the character of Haworth. We did the best we could with finding locations,” Councilman Glenn Poosikian said.
He explained that no one on the council opposes affordable housing; there is concern that Haworth has little space available for new housing.
He said while some residents might be under a “misconception that affordable housing means bringing in new residents from other communities,” the affordable housing also gives older local residents with reduced incomes an opportunity to stay in town.
“It was a balancing act we were tasked with,“ he said.
He said residents need to understand that the councilmembers are residents also.
“We’re not happy with being forced to make any type of settlement with Fair Share…but we did the best we could to satisfy the mandate,” he said.