The Highland Park Borough Council unanimously has approved a new affordable housing plan that it expects will meet Highland Park’s obligations going forward.
The plan, ratified July 30, 2015, in a joint meeting with the Highland Park Planning Board, outlines the efforts the borough has undertaken since 2008 to improve its affordable housing obligations under the state Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel rulings. That was when the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) rejected the borough’s previous plan as unsatisfactory, and the borough was hit with developers’ lawsuits.
No one from the public attended the July 31 meeting.
The borough’s plan now heads to state Superior Court, where Judge Philip Paley will rule on its acceptability. The courts also will set a level of affordable housing that the borough must reach by 2025.
Highland Park officials believe the borough has done everything it needs to satisfy its legal obligations to provide affordable housing.
The municipality on July 8, 2015, requested a hearing before Judge Philip Paley in New Brunswick to show compliance with the state Affordable Housing Act. Legal counsel is scheduled to outline the details of that plan in a joint meeting of the Borough Council and Planning Board at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 30, 2015. That meeting will be closed to the public; however, officials are expected to unveil and vote on the plan immediately afterwards.
Municipalities are required under state law to designate a certain amount of housing for lower-income households. When municipalities cannot show that they have met this requirement, they run the risk of being hit with what is known as a builders remedy lawsuit. Such suits can compel the municipality to allow higher-density development than land-use law normally would permit as a way of obtaining the state-mandated number of affordable housing units.
Highland Park found itself hit with two such lawsuits in 2009. One of those developments is still under construction by Pulte Homes. The other, filed by American Properties, involves an undeveloped property on Cleveland Avenue.
“At the time, we were unable to demonstrate that we had complied with the Affordable Housing Act,” said Borough Attorney Ed Schmierer. “There’s a lot the borough’s done in the area of affordable housing since 2008.”
Highland Park has about 150 rehabilitated living units, and about another 100 newly built or renovated living units, said Mr. Schmierer. But is that enough?
That’s one of the matters Judge Paley will settle. The requested hearing has not been scheduled, but probably will occur in early fall, Mr. Schmierer said.
Eligibility for affordable housing is determined relative to the median income in the county. In Middlesex County, a four-person household with an annual income of less than $52,500 qualifies for low-income housing; if that same household earns less than $84,000, it qualifies for moderate-income housing.
Practically speaking, if a household in that income range owns an existing house and wants to make basic repairs to bring the house up to current safety codes, the household may qualify for a grant from Middlesex County for up to $10,000. The house that benefits from the grant in return would be designated an affordable housing unit for a 10-year period. If the owners move within that period, they are required to repay a portion of the grant.
With new construction, developers are required to set aside a portion of the housing for low- and moderate-income households. In the Kaplan Group development, for instance, approved by the Planning Board, the developer received approval for 200 new rental units. Thirty of these are designated for affordable housing.
Borough officials presumably believe that with the rehabilitated housing stock inside Highland Park and with the anticipated new units, that the borough is in compliance with state law. If council members agree with the legal presentation Thursday, the final ruling could come sometime this fall.
For a primer on New Jersey’s affordable housing rules we suggst this article by “NJ Spotlight.org” July 10, 2015:
“The clock continues to wind down for municipalities to file and obtain approval for their fair-share housing plans with the courts.
A Middlesex County Superior Court decision, released yesterday, gives municipalities no more than five months from when they initially filed a request for “temporary immunity” from lawsuits while they file plans to complete an agreement or satisfy their obligations to provide affordable housing.
Otherwise, the courts could order what they consider a “fair share” of affordable housing, resulting in towns essentially losing their rights to home rule as related to zoning.”