Legislation to rework affordable housing in NJ seeks to streamline process

Trenton Democrats introduced legislation Dec. 18 aimed at addressing a pressing issue here in the Garden State – affordable housing.

Assembly Bill 4/Senate Bill 4251 would create a new, streamlined process to give municipalities greater flexibility to build affordable housing, according to sponsors Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-19th District, and Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District.

They say it would do this by creating a neutral panel of experts to mediate conflicts about how much and where affordable housing should be built to reduce costly and lengthy litigation that has delayed the building of new accommodations.

Pointing to a 2015 ruling by the State Supreme Court that the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) was not capable of functioning as intended – which led to those lengthy, expensive conflicts – the sponsors say this legislation would replace COAH with a statutory formula for determining obligations and a municipally-driven process for developing constitutionally required affordable housing.

The legislation would establish mediation panels to quickly and efficiently determine the amount of housing needed and where it should be built in each municipality — rather than having the dispute go through the court process.

Sponsors also note that any municipality engaging in a good-faith effort to build the necessary amount of amount of affordable housing would be temporarily immune from lawsuits brought by developers.

“Although New Jersey has doubled its supply of affordable housing over the last eight years, we still remain over 200,000 units short,” said Singleton. “While this proposal will not address all of the barriers to affordable housing development, it will streamline the process and ensure that towns are in compliance with the obligations established by the courts. Expanding access to affordable housing must continue to be a priority, as it is needed now more than ever.”

Expanding access to affordable housing must continue to be a priority, as it is needed now more than ever.
– Sen. Troy Singleton

“Creating affordable housing is integral to the well-being and longevity of our residents,” said Lopez. “In this endeavor our municipal partners are incredibly important. Based on challenges facing municipalities in the past, we worked to create a process that lays out a uniform, transparent, and efficient plan for municipalities to meet their fair share obligations. The bill achieves our goal of striking a balance between the needs of municipalities and the increased need for affordable housing production.”

Increasing inventory, offering incentives

The two prime sponsors held a press conference with reporters Monday to discuss the new legislation, along with Democratic legislative leaders and fellow bill sponsors, Senate President Nick Scutari, 22nd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, 19th District.

“For decades, our state has struggled to provide enough affordable housing options for residents,” said Coughlin. “We’ve already allocated significant resources for housing this session and now, we will truly turn the corner. We are moving forward with a comprehensive package of legislation to address some of the most stubborn obstacles to building more affordable housing. We’ve consulted with municipal leaders, with builders, lenders, and advocates to develop an approach that will increase the inventory of affordable housing and hopefully reduce the burdens and delays that all parties have faced for so long.”

Coughlin said the legislative package will include incentives to build new housing, tax relief for purchases of building supplies, and common sense ideas like rewarding sweat equity for residents who put it into their homes.

“These investments will pay dividends for generations to come. We’ll also streamline the current system and find new ways to reach consensus on how to meet housing needs fairly in the communities and throughout the state,” Coughlin continued. “Our cities, suburbs, and rural communities have all tried to reconcile this issue, usually with messy, costly legal battles and confusing mandates as a result.”

The Assembly speaker said we can do a lot – working with mayors and councils to meet constitutional obligations while helping hardworking New Jersey families thrive and move into affordable housing in the communities they love.

“For almost 10 years, too much of New Jersey’s housing policy has been left to courts without proper state guidance or support – therefore delaying substantive progress,” Coughlin explained. “The Council on Affordable Housing couldn’t meet its obligations to ensure access while also balancing the needs of municipalities to plan for their future. But today, that changes. Today, we are introducing a landmark bill that will abolish COAH and streamline the process for municipalities.”

Scutari began his remarks echoing Coughlin’s thoughts about their legislative focus on affordability, noting that this issue hits right into the heart of that. He also pointed to the funding allocated to affordable housing in recent state budgets as a reflection of this issue as a priority for their caucus.

“I think, most importantly, this bill will put together a mechanism that’s functional,” said Scutari. “The Council on Affordable Housing was challenged, didn’t seem to work. The courts have now been leading this effort – and I think we are looking to marry those efforts into a process that’s going to work better for all those involved – municipalities, builders, and most importantly, the people that need places to live.”

Scutari said that by taking this significant step, they are aiming to preserve and develop more affordable housing in the Garden State.

“This bill marks a crucial strike toward making housing in New Jersey more accessible and more affordable for all of New Jersey’s residents,” said Scutari.

Lopez said she believes this will mark the next step in addressing overall affordability in New Jersey.

“Creating affordable housing is integral to the well-being and longevity of our residents,” said Lopez. “This bill offers a clear and comprehensive pathway toward meeting our shared housing goals.”

Show of support

She explained some of the particulars of the bill, including the creation of an affordable housing dispute resolution program as well as assigned, county-level housing judges. Lopez says it creates a clear timeline for municipalities to develop plans.

The bill is being introduced in advance of the next round of municipal affordable housing obligations, which begins July 1, 2025. Under the legislation, a municipality must adopt its affordable housing obligation by binding resolution on or before Jan. 31, 2025, in order to be assured of protection from a builder’s remedy lawsuit.

“We want people to stay here in New Jersey,” Lopez said. “And with this process as a tool, we will create more affordable housing opportunities and increase affordability for all.”

“The legislation we’re introducing today, as Yvonne said, will codify years of legal precedents and ensure New Jersey’s affordable housing system is insulated from changes in leadership or an effort [to] undermine equitable access,” said Singleton. “Clearly, the need remains high. But it is our hope that through this legislation and the holistic approach it represents, that we can begin to shrink that gap and, in turn, provide more affordable housing for all residents. The legislation we will introduce today looks at a regional approach – appointing special masters in the North, South and Central regions – ensuring they have an understanding of the unique needs of their areas.”

When asked about passing the legislation and whether it would get done during the lame duck session, Coughlin said if they can get it done then they will, pointing to an aggressive timeline.

“We want to get started as soon as we can,” Coughlin told reporters. “Sooner rather than later.”

Following the introduction of the legislation, Gov. Phil Murphy’s office took the rare step of commenting on the pending legislation.

“Gov. Murphy applauds Senate President Scutari, Speaker Coughlin, Senator Singleton, and Assemblywoman Lopez for putting forward a bold proposal to address affordable housing obligations for the next decade and beyond,” Bailey Lawrence, Murphy’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement. “The governor looks forward to constructively engaging with the Legislature on this legislation and is hopeful that a final version can be enacted into law before the end of the current legislative session.”

The introduction of the legislation and focus on the issue was also welcomed by Senate Republicans.

“I am glad to see that the Legislature is finally focusing on this most incredibly important issue. I plan on reviewing the legislation closely to determine if the proposed new process improves the way affordable housing is developed in New Jersey,” said Senate Republican Leader Anthony Bucco, R-25th District. “It is my hope that the new plan doesn’t just re-up the old methodology handed down from the courts without taking into account a municipalities local infrastructure, employment opportunities, and sound municipal planning.”

Bucco continued by stressing the need for a better approach.

“Taking the process out of the courts is a good first step, but we also need to make common sense reforms to eliminate sprawl, save taxpayer dollars, and give municipalities the flexibility and autonomy to choose the right path for meeting reasonable affordable housing needs,” said Bucco.


Staci Berger, president and CEO, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said her members welcome the opportunity to provide careful feedback and weigh in on these proposed changes to the municipal fair share process as the legislation advances.

“Through the Mount Laurel doctrine, New Jersey has the strongest commitment to ensuring that all of N.J.’s residents have the opportunity to live in safe, affordable homes in the community of their choice. The principles in the Mount Laurel doctrine must be preserved, and used to overcome hundreds of years of systemic and institutional racism that has resulted in one of the largest racial wealth gaps, driven by housing inequities, in our nation,” said Berger. “We are hopeful that this proposal builds on our state’s strong foundation of ensuring and enforcing Mount Laurel and makes permanent the best elements of the current process, when state courts declared the Council on Affordable Housing ‘moribund’ and took over the process itself.”

Berger did express some concern about the lame duck component of the process – stressing that Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey’s member organizations, partners and allies look forward to reviewing the legislation and request that legislative leaders and bill sponsors allow all stakeholders an opportunity to offer feedback and ideas.

“We are deeply concerned about considering this initiative during the holiday season, when many of our members are already extremely busy providing services to their communities, and during the waning days of the lame duck legislative session,” said Berger. “We urge the Legislature and Gov. Murphy to move carefully and deliberately and to collect feedback from the folks who are building affordable homes to HouseNJ.”

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