CHERRY HILL, NJ - The New Jersey Supreme Court Wednesday delivered an important victory for tens of thousands of New Jersey families by ruling that towns were responsible for meeting housing needs which accumulated during the 16-year "gap period" when the state's fair housing laws were not functioning properly.
The court rejected a group of towns' efforts to exclude these families, saying the New Jersey Constitution requires municipalities to address the extreme backlog which developed when the Council on Affordable Housing was unable to devise housing rules, known as the Third Round, which could withstand legal scrutiny.
"As to the fundamental disagreement - whether the gap period must be addressed - we waste no time in settling that issue. There is no fair reading of this Court's prior decisions that supports disregarding the constitutional obligation to address pent-up affordable housing need for low- and moderate income households that formed during the years in which COAH was unable to promulgate valid Third Round rules," wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in a unanimous 32-page decision. "We hold that towns are constitutionally obligated to provide a realistic opportunity for their fair share of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households formed during the gap period and presently existing in New Jersey."
If towns had been successful, up to 60 percent of obligations municipalities must meet would have disappeared and towns would have been able to lock in patterns of housing discrimination that make New Jersey one of the most segregated states in the country.
"This ruling is a victory for lower-income and minority families across New Jersey," said Colandus "Kelly" Francis, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Fair Share Housing Center and Vice President of the Camden County Branch of the NAACP. "This ruling means that thousands of lower-income and minority families will be given the opportunity to live in safe neighborhoods, send their children to good schools, and work at jobs where they live instead of traveling hours commuting each day. We fight to end discrimination in housing and zoning because the exclusion of so many harms our whole state, especially African American and Latino communities."
The court's ruling follows an earlier 2015 decision by the court which was designed to break through the bureaucratic logjam preventing proper enforcement of New Jersey's fair housing laws, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, by turning over enforcement to the trial courts.
A clear consensus across the state has been emerging in recent months that towns can and should meet their obligations.
More than 90 towns across New Jersey - including Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, Woodbridge, Toms River, Edison, Bridgewater - have reached agreements with advocates, non-profits and developers establishing obligations of more than 30,000 homes. These settlements will foster the redevelopment of vacant strip malls, office parks and industrial sites into vibrant new communities and revitalize the state's many historic downtowns by increasing access to transit.
A trial is also currently underway in Mercer County to establish housing obligations for towns in that county. Ewing, Robbinsville and Hamilton have already reached settlements establishing obligations totaling 1,500 homes.
"Shovels are already in the ground to build more homes for New Jersey families," said Kevin Walsh, Executive Director of the Fair Share Housing Center. "This decision clears away one of the main obstacles remaining in the fight for fair housing in New Jersey. The towns who were fighting in court are outside the mainstream and now know that they will not be rewarded for further obstruction and delay."
You can read a copy of the decision here.