The long-awaited ruling by Judge Mary Jacobson was issued on March 8 and followed a trial that took place between January and June of 2017.
In the trial, the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill argued that West Windsor was responsible for providing for more than 2,000 affordable housing units for the period between 1999 and 2025. West Windsor argued that the number was closer to 1,000 new units.
The judge’s 217-page decision also applied to Princeton and found that community is responsible for 753 units. Princeton had argued that its obligation was some 300 units.
West Windsor and Princeton were the only two communities in Mercer County that did not settle with FSHC, instead deciding to take their chances in court.
Jacobson gave the towns until June to submit plans to the court on how they will meet their obligations. That will be followed by a compliance hearing sometime in July.
West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe said that township officials and planning and legal professionals are still in the process of digesting the lengthy ruling and determining the town’s next step. Among the options to being considered is an appeal of the decision.
Marathe said he was planning on discussing the case with township council at its March 12 meeting, which took place after The News went to press.
“I was a little surprised by the number,” Marathe said. “The expert appointed by the court had given a number of 1,000 units, so it was a slap in the face of the court’s own expert more than anything else.”
‘If the governor is truly interested in controlling property taxes, there is no issue out there that will affect them more than this.’
Marathe said he was also dismayed that the township was forced to pay for the court-appointed expert, and then the judge went on to ignore the expert’s testimony. “These lawsuits are very expensive to us. Why go through the charade and a long trial if you are going to ignore your own expert?”
West Windsor has already provided for 899 units in prior rounds, so the 1,500 number increases the township’s total fair share to 2,399 units. But that doesn’t actually translate to the number of units that have to be built. The way a community’s fair share is met is complicated, and some types of units—such as rentals, for example—count as more than one unit.
Although some residents fear that the decision will help the Howard Hughes Corporation in its quest to build a mixed-use development that contains some 2,000 homes on the old Amercian Cyanamid tract, officials have said that the township’s obligation can be met without involving that site.
Marathe says that by his preliminary calculations, the town currently has credit for between 1,000 and 1,200 units toward the 1,500-unit mandate, meaning the town must still provide for up to 500 new units. If these units are built by developers who subsidize the cost of the affordable units with new construction, it could mean more than 2,000 new units of housing in the town. That’s an increase of about 20 percent to the township’s current inventory of some 10,000 units.
Marathe said that it’s time for the governor and state lawmakers to step up to the plate and help communities address the issue by passing legislation governing the way towns’ affordable housing obligations are determined.
Currently, affordable housing numbers are being decided by the state judiciary because the state Council on Affordable Housing became defunct under Gov. Chris Christie and the state legislature failed to pass any new laws.
“I would request the new governor and legislature take this issue up,” Marathe said. “If the governor is truly interested in controlling property taxes, there is no issue out there that will affect them more than this. Unless he takes proactive action, it’s going to be a mess.”
Judge Jacobson’s ruling is expected to have implications that reach far beyond the borders of West Windsor and Princeton. More than 100 municipalities in the state still have not settled on their fair share number.
In her ruling, the judge found that the statewide need through 2025 is more than 150,000 units. There is also a chance that affordable housing advocates might challenge the judge’s methodology in an appeal in order to increase the number of units statewide.
“Judge Jacobson’s decision recognizes the very substantial need for homes for working families and people with disabilities in New Jersey,” said Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center in a statement. “This ruling sends a strong message to any town still seeking to exclude working families that they won’t succeed.
“While we are still examining the impact of this decision and disagree with some of the ruling, this decision is the latest development in a process that is laying the groundwork for tens of thousands of new homes to address New Jersey’s housing affordability crisis.”
Jacobsen’s decision was also a subject of conversation among statewide planners and big developers at New Jersey Future’s annual redevelopment conference held in New Brunswick on March 9, the day after the ruling came out.
A source told The News that one land use consultant, who works for big developers—the kind that would build Howard Hughes-style projects—declined to comment specifically. Instead he flashed a big smile and briefly danced a jig to reflect his delight at the long-awaited ruling.
It was standing room only at a panel discussion during the event on affordable housing. Moderator Lori Grifra, former commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs and now a partner at the Archer & Greiner law firm, called the ruling “a game changing decision.” She added that “the idea that there would be no obligation has been retired. The time for practical solutions is now.”