COAH under siege

20 towns joined forces in 2008 to file suit against the New Jersey Council On Affordable Housing (COAH). Are these locals opposed to “affordables” living in their towns?

Quite the contrary. All 20 towns are in compliance with COAH’s rules and have filed appropriate plans to comply with NJ’s affordable housing law. In other words, they are building the affordable housing they are supposed to.

So, what’s up? COAH’s goofy new rules penalize towns for being in compliance. New, retroactive obligations are being created — if your town thought it had ponied up the required units, the new rules recalculate the numbers and presto! you owe more units.

These new obligations are based on the number of jobs a town is projected to develop over the next ten years and on projections of overall development. While COAH claims towns only have to build affordable units if they grow, it’s not as simple as that. To get protection from lawsuits by builders seeking to overturn a town’s entire zoning, the town must submit a comprehensive COAH plan for the future. No plan,  no protection.

COAH says, “You’re not obligated to submit a plan!” Yah, but COAH empowers builders to sue if there’s no plan. So for all practical purposes, a COAH plan is obligatory. At a potential cost of $50,000 or more, it’s also a budget-shattering cost for many towns. But the problem is far worse.

The suit filed by the 20 towns reveals that COAH knowingly used erroneous estimates of new jobs and expected growth. COAH commissioned a pilot study to test its own conclusions — but withheld the study even after the NJ League of Municipalities filed an Open Public Records Act request for it. The pilot study revealed dramatic flaws in COAH’s methodology that resulted in larger affordable housing obligations than can be justified. The litigants in the lawsuit contend that COAH’s affordable housing polices are thus tainted.

COAH’s own consultants estimate that NJ will add about 6,500 new jobs per year through 2028 — but COAH has withheld these studies. In calculating NJ’s total obligation, COAH instead uses 54,000 new jobs per year. Curiously, that figure imposes a “statewide need” of about 115,000 new affordable housing units — right around the number Governor Corzine promised to build when he ran for office. Trouble is, the figure is wrong. The obligation is wildly exaggerated. Legislators including Senator Kip Bateman have challenged Governor Corzine to release COAH’s own research.

Department of Community Affairs Commissioner (and COAH Chief) Joseph Doria says there was no intent to hide the conflicting studies and suggests that towns are welcome to contest the housing obligations COAH has put on them.

Attorney Stuart Koenig, representing the 20 towns, differs with Doria. He says COAH’s rules and housing formulas make it virtually impossible to get an adjustment. “Municipalities are being compelled to provide unreasonable affordable housing numbers on flawed methodology,” says Koenig.

The resulting obligations imposed on towns to build new affordable housing will virtually bankrupt New Jersey. So the group of 20 towns is suing — and so are over 200 more towns represented by the NJ League of Municipalities. Stay tuned. Final briefs were just submitted to the court. A decision is expected sometime this summer — if COAH doesn’t implode on its own first.

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