For more than a year, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (the Network), an NLIHC state partner, has been involved in a campaign to defeat the original version of S. 1, which included unconstitutional language that would harm the state’s affordable housing system.
Due to push back on the new bill from Governor Chris Christie (R), a supporter of the original bill, and Senator Raymond Lesniak (D), the original sponsor of S. 1, the legislation is now on hold. Governor Christie issued a conditional veto on January 9 requesting the legislature adopt the initial version of S. 1 before the bill receives his signature. Advocates began a letter campaign to urge legislators to reject the veto, but Senator Lesniak withdrew the bill on February 7, nullifying the Governor’s actions. Senator Lesniak plans to introduce a new version of the proposal, but provides no specific details on what will be changed and when it will be introduced.
Last year, Senator Lesniak and Governor Christie worked separately to abolish the state’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). COAH is responsible for ensuring housing obligations to low and moderate income people are met by municipalities across the state, as mandated by the 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision known as ‘Mount Laurel.’ The Network and its allies have worked to preserve the Mount Laurel decision, while drafting changes in the state’s housing policy that would create the homes and jobs residents need.
The Network with their allies at the Fair Share Housing Center launched a massive organizing drive to get nearly 100 organizations to oppose the original version of S.1. The coalition of advocates contacted their legislators and submitted letters and opinion pieces to newspapers. Community developers, people with special needs, environmentalists, civil rights leaders and others concerned about the bill’s impact testified along with Network staff at multiple hearings. At least four iterations of the bill were considered by various Senate committees, all of which were publicly condemned by the Network and coalition partners.
On June 3, the Senate Economic Growth Committee, chaired by Senator Lesniak, met for 10 minutes to adopt amendments that completely revised the bill again. Although the room was filled with people, including a member of the Governor’s Cabinet, the committee refused to take testimony. A week later, the full Senate passed S.1 with bipartisan support (28-3). The version adopted would abolish COAH and allow municipalities to meet their housing obligations with a $10,000 payment instead of by building affordable housing.
After S. 1 was sent to the state Assembly, advocates reached out to assembly members though calls and letters. With the legislation delayed, the Network launched a media project called “Journey Home” in which they recruited more than two dozen individuals to share their stories through videos posted on YouTube. The video blog, released at a September state house press conference and distributed to key legislators, helped illustrate that families with real housing needs would be adversely impacted by the decisions being pursued by the Governor and Senator Lesniak.
Advocates convinced the Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee to hold a hearing that included testimony from advocates on the legislation, and not vote on the bill until more research on its impact on affordable housing could be completed. Advocates were pleased when the Assembly delayed the vote, standing up to pressure from Senator Lesniak and the Governor to pass S. 1 and end the legislative session by fulfilling their promise to “gut COAH”.
Advocates’ appeal for the Assembly to revise S. 1 were helped in October, when the Appellate Division of the NJ Superior Court issued an order to the Governor to revise COAH’s current affordable housing regulations. The court noted that low and moderate income housing needs must be met in a fair and predictable way and the methods used to meet that need must be realistic and backed by sufficient economic incentives. In addition, the court stated that municipalities may not have their housing obligations reduced when they implement exclusionary policies contrary to sound planning principles.
On December 13, the Assembly passed A. 3447, their version of S. 1, and in January both chambers passed A. 3447 with minor Senate amendments. Advocates now await the introduction of a replacement bill by Senator Lesniak. While advocates believe A. 3447 is not perfect, they were relieved that it has changed from the original S. 1 version, and that the legislation would allow for the creation of homes for first-time homebuyers and family rentals.
"The Network will continue to work with the legislature to ensure New Jersey has a constitutional housing policy that gives our residents the starter homes and family rentals we need," said Arnold Cohen, policy coordinator for the Network. "Any future legislative actions on housing reform must have the same principles as A.3447/S.1."
For more information, contact Arnold Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org