January/February, 2012; Source: HousingFinance.com | For years, suburban New Jersey municipalities erected all sorts of zoning and other regulatory barriers to prevent the construction of affordable housing. Then, in a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court case—the Mount Laurel decisions of 1975 and 1983—the courts said that all municipalities had an affirmative obligation to encourage the development of their fair share of affordable housing. Subsequent legislation led to the creation of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), a state agency that calculated how much affordable housing localities were obligated to make way for. The council also regulated how suburban communities could “trade” parts of their affordable housing obligations—in the form of money—to densely populated cities that had more than their fair share of affordable housing but were willing to develop more.

Last summer, Gov. Chris Christie abolished COAH, leaving the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) with the responsibility of implementing Mount Laurel and the Fair Housing Act of 1985. Christie’s decision is being challenged in court, but for the moment there is no state agency charged with pushing municipalities to fulfill their affordable housing obligations as calculated by COAH. Christie seems unsympathetic to the whole idea, saying, “Municipalities should be able to make their own decisions on affordable housing without being micromanaged and second-guessed from Trenton,” while calling COAH and its system of requirements and regulations “a nightmare.”

Pursuant to Christie’s mandate, DCA’s replacement of COAH will likely replace the purportedly nightmarish affordable housing requirements with a much more lenient enforcement regime. In fact, DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa says that DCA will not be an enforcement agency.

Will the courts follow the governor? Whether they reaffirm Mount Laurel and the Fair Housing Act or kick the entire program to the curb, one possible immediate outcome is that New Jersey communities will forget about affordable housing without COAH on the beat.

With COAH, municipalities were exploring affordable housing options and talking to developers, including the state’s very strong contingent of community development corporations. According to Arnold Cohen, policy director for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, the state’s nonprofit housing development trade association, “Before the governor did this, towns wanted to talk to developers. Now they don’t want to answer their phone calls. They feel they can get away with doing nothing.”

Nonprofits were the backbone of New Jersey’s affirmative response to the affordable-housing needs of low- and moderate-income families. With the stroke of Gov. Christie’s pen, nonprofit developers and the communities they serve may have to watch affordable housing development come to a halt.—Rick Cohen