A long, long time ago, before our lives were changed by the coronavirus, a common event played out at the door to my office in the municipal building.
A resident that I have known for years popped her head in and asked me whether it was true that affordable housing was going to be built at the Lawrence Shopping Center on the parking lot closest to Princeton Pike. You know, the one where we take our kids to learn how to parallel park before they take their driver’s test. I told her that there was some interest in that location by developers, but it turned out that due to environmental restrictions, nothing can be built there.
She said, “Good, we don’t need any more affordable housing in our town anyway.” At that moment, I winced to myself (I think it wasn’t visible but I’m not sure) and pondered whether I should respond by telling her why her statement was profoundly…ummm..wrong. I decided to simply smile, wish her a good day, and made a mental note that this was an important topic for an article. Well, here it is people!
First, I will tell you all that a topic as expansive as affordable housing obligations in the State of New Jersey is one where experts have written books that rival the length of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” For me to condense the topic into something more manageable will require me to simply hit some of the highlights, which will most assuredly leave out much of the technical aspects on the subject matter. But my hope is you know more than you did before you decided to read further.
Every community in New Jersey has a continuous obligation to provide affordable housing to meet its present and future needs. The New Jersey Supreme court concluded it was a constitutional obligation in its landmark 1975 decision now referred to as “Mount Laurel I.” It was further codified by the legislature in the Fair Housing Act of 1985 (known as “Mount Laurel II”). This requires each municipality to adopt a “Housing Element and Fair Share Plan” (more commonly known as our “Affordable Housing Plan”) for development and redevelopment of housing within the community. How a municipality determines its need is by using established criteria and guidelines which, in the business, is referred to as “methodology.”
In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court established a judicial process for municipalities to gain approval of their housing plans. This means that in order for a municipality to be in compliance with our constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing, it must convince a judge and the designated Special Master that the needs of our community will be met with the plan as proposed.
To be very clear, this is not a “wink-wink” situation where everybody doesn’t look too closely, and an approval is issued. Far from it, the proposed plans are closely scrutinized and often criticized as lacking.
As residents of Lawrence Township, you can all feel a sense of pride to be a part of a community that has been essentially leading the way in meeting our obligations to provide affordable housing as compared to other communities in the state. We have addressed our constitutional affordable housing obligations in the First Round (1987-1993), Second Round (1993-1999), and most recently in the Third Round (1999-2018)—first in NJ to do so.
In an oversimplification, our obligation and present need is 696 units (dwellings). Trust me when I tell you that the methodology used to determine our obligation is mind-numbing. But 696 units is the number to get you all in the right mindset. Our obligation is to create (through and by private developers) 696 dwellings (single family houses, town homes, condos, rental apartments, age restricted and/or homes for persons with disabilities).
This is no easy task. Throw in the NIMBY effect, and it should become clear that the conflict and struggle to meet the needs of our community are real. But they are also important, honorable and socially responsible, and we will do it because it’s right.
Kevin Nerwinski, a longtime resident of Lawrence, serves as Lawrence Township’s municipal manager.