Stock photo.

Five Mercer County towns — East Windsor, West Windsor, Princeton, Lawrence and Hopewell Township — are currently in litigation in superior court with the Cherry Hill-based nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center over their obligations to zone for affordable housing. The Fair Share Housing Center, appointed by the state to litigate on behalf of people who need affordable housing, is arguing that these towns need to act more urgently and decisively to satisfy their fair share obligations.

Judge Mary C. Jacobson is hearing the case, which began in January, with a ruling not expected until March at the earliest. Some towns, including Hamilton, Ewing and Robbinsville, have settled with the FSHC and are not parties to the lawsuit.

Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, sent out a scathing letter in January singling out Hopewell and West Windsor as towns that were “pursuing strategies of delay and obstruction designed to lock in longstanding patterns of racial and economic segregation.”

We spoke to FSHC spokesman Anthony Campisi last month about the letter and about what exactly the FSHC wants from towns like Hopewell and West Windsor. The interview has been edited for clarity.

First, I’d like to talk about the term “affordable housing.” It’s not just low-income housing that is in short supply. Middle-income earners find affordable housing difficult to come by as well. Is it possible that New Jersey just has a residential development problem in general?

Definitely. People think of affordable housing as being for very low-income people, possibly without jobs, and they are definitely included. And there’s a large category of people living with disabilities who report very low income, who need housing. But the state’s definition for affordable housing can mean up to 80 percent of median area income. Your average person living in a Mount Laurel-type development is generally a service-sector worker working two jobs, say a single mom trying to get by.

Also, a lot of this has to do with starter homes. There have been some interesting reports recently about the fact that New Jersey has the highest number of millennials living at home. Studies attribute that to the lack of starter homes. Some of these homes being built, let’s say for the 80-percent bracket, are for people who want to move out of their parents’ house, but there’s nothing in town for less than half a million dollars. We think that the work that we’re doing really expands opportunities for people who fit those parameters as well.

The Fair Share Housing Center sent out a letter in January that quoted Rev. Darrell Armstrong of Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, suggesting that local opposition to affordable housing was an issue of race and segregation. Is it the FSHC’s contention that towns like Hopewell and West Windsor are discriminating on the basis of race?

I don’t want to accuse a particular person of being racist. But New Jersey is both one of the most diverse states in the country and one of the most racially segregated. I think it would be foolish to think systemic racism doesn’t play a role in the land-use decisions that towns make.

You can’t exclude somebody explicitly on race, but you can do what Hopewell did, which is lure Capital Health to relocate a big facility from Trenton, but fight the creation of workforce housing for the nurse’s assistants and the janitors and the X-ray technicians, these lower-paid people who keep the hospital running.

If you look at the racial demographics of that versus doctors, who probably were living in Hopewell already, you see where the racial disparities come from. We would totally agree with Rev. Armstrong. Our fair housing laws are key to ensuring racial and socioeconomic integration.

Towns like Robbinsville and Plainsboro have settled with the FSHC. How do these settlements work? Are your representatives and town officials sitting down in a room?

In part. Judges appoint people who are essentially expert planners to advise the judge. They act as go-between for the housing advocates and developers who essentially have parcels identified for development and who need governing bodies to get out of the way and allow these parcels to be built.

What it comes down to is all sides end up making some compromises. We generally come down from our number, but at the same time we get municipalities to agree to specific things.

We’re particularly interested in targeting assistance to very low-income-family renters — there’s a severe rental housing shortage in the state — and people with disabilities.
We think these settlements are more than words on paper. We think they will lead to the construction of new homes pretty quickly, which is what we’re looking for.

Plainsboro settled for around 54 percent of the number FSHC devised for the town in May 2016, Robbinsville at 60 percent. Is there some sort of target area you’re looking for in terms of settling, some percentage of the number you ask for that you’ll generally consider reasonable?

That’s a little misleading. Under New Jersey fair-housing law, there are municipal caps when towns’ obligations are in excess of 1,000 units.

The caps are one of the incentives for settlements on both sides. I wouldn’t say we agreed to a 60-percent “discount” for a town like Robbinsville. For high-obligation towns, depending on how the caps are, there are numbers that we can probably agree on.

In West Windsor they feel like they have addressed this issue, that affordable housing has been built in the township.

AC: Some towns have [built affordable housing] during the 16-year gap period, but the question is whether they’ve done enough and whether they’re willing to acknowledge the fact they haven’t done enough.

It’s great if you’ve met 50 percent of your obligation, but the law requires you to meet a hundred percent. I’m not sure if you deserve a lot of credit for allowing a little housing. If we thought they had met their obligations, we wouldn’t be litigating against them.

In Hopewell in particular, there is a problem in that much of the undeveloped land lacks sewerage capacity.

There are special provisions in New Jersey law about sewer capacity. Just saying “we don’t have sewer capacity” isn’t good enough.

A lot of successful settlements have identified vacant industrial parks or office parks or strip malls and slated them for mixed-use redevelopment. It’s not enough to throw up your arms and say we don’t have the space.

Princeton keeps arguing that they can never be expected to build enough housing, but there are provisions in the law to allow towns to permit realistic development potential.

None of these towns are on the hook for more than they’re able to do. While we think a lot of homes can be built pretty quickly, we don’t think every single home is going to be built tomorrow or even 10 years from now.

Municipalities make it seem like we’re not realistic. We’re very willing to sit down and work with people, but we’re not going to take a deal that’s bad for New Jersey families. Places like Hopewell and West Windsor have developers who are saying, “We want to be able to build affordable housing, but there isn’t appropriate zoning.” It’s important that when there is demand, homes are built and it’s done in ways that provide access for working families.

Hopewell’s Planning Board recently made master plan changes that would permit the development of housing near the medical center. But I guess you’re saying actions speak louder than words.

Actions definitely speak louder than words. It’s very easy to go up in front of governing body and say, “We care about affordable housing.”

It’s another to sit down with us and come up with realistic options to expand in your municipality and follow through. West Windsor and Hopewell have a long track record of not doing that. Princeton has shown intent to do the right things, but ends up doing very little of what needs to be done.

They are always asking for special deals because they’re very nice people. That’s just not the way the law works.

Princeton likes talking about its historical African-American community. Meanwhile the African-American population has declined in recent years. They’re talking about a vision of what their community was like years ago and think as a result they don’t have to do anything.

The whole point of the fair-share housing laws are that these are obligations that continue over time, so that we’re constantly meeting the needs of New Jersey.

One of the goals of the Fair Share Housing Center seems to be to distribute housing throughout the state. But the trend in recent years is to go away from suburban sprawl and toward more mixed-use, concentrated development. Is the FSHC keeping changing development trends in mind?

That’s one of the big goals of the current legal process. Take a good example of the horrible planning in the Route 1 corridor through Mercer and Middlesex. It’s a disastrous commute because there’s not enough workforce housing. People are driving absurd distances to get to their jobs.

Mount Laurel is a tool for smart planning. It says if you’re going to do commercial or industrial development, you need to also house the workers who are employed by these places. The way housing is trending is toward revitalizing New Jersey’s downtowns.

A good example in northern Middlesex is Metuchen, which has a historic downtown. They’re converting a parking lot right next to train station in the center of town into about 250 units of housing plus structured parking. The idea is you want people to be able to easily walk to the train station, to inject more vitality, consumers, street life into the downtown section.
We worked closely with the municipality to craft a plan to ensure this big development has an inclusionary component, and also worked with the municipality to find other sites in a near downtown that may become candidates for denser development right next to commercial uses.

They’re putting zoning in place now so when somebody wants to redevelop a parking lot in the future, there’s something in place to do that.

Mercer has a problem with various large office parks or office towers that are empty. We sort of work with municipalities to figure out the zoning that makes sense for vacant properties to ensure there’s affordability component. Things like that we think are wins for everyone. It brings everything into productive use and fights sprawl.

It might be easier for Metuchens and Collingswoods, that have traditional downtowns. But we’re starting to see some larger municipalities get involved as well. Towns like Hopewell are behind the times. Mount Laurel is a weapon to help bring them into the fold.

A lot of towns that resist say, “We don’t have enough land.” Our response is, have you mapped out all vacant properties? Met with developers and seen if there’s a residential reuse for them? In that way, Mount Laurel is a really useful planning tool.

Do you have a solution for what towns should do that feel that their schools are overcrowded or underfunded and simply can’t accommodate more students?

A Princeton University sociologist (Douglas S. Massey) did an entire book on the effect of 100-percent affordable development in Mount Laurel Township, the Ethel Lawrence Homes, that led to the law you see now. He found very clearly that there were no tax increases, no increase in crime, none of the parade of horribles that people talk about.

People didn’t even know where the affordable housing was in their community. Thirty years of litigation, 10 years after it was built, no one knew where it was.

The facts just don’t bear it out at all. The fact is we’re trying to bring properties back on the tax rolls, if we’re talking about redevelopment. In the end, you can’t build an exclusive enclave where you attract high-end retail and exclude the cashiers who work in those retail establishments.

You can’t approve the development of a Whole Foods but then exclude the people who clean the floors and stock the shelves. That’s another reason why the law’s constructed in ways to focus on regional needs.

The supreme court realizes this is more than a municipal issue. There’s a regional perspective that needs to be brought to bear.