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A Lone But Welcome Victory in the Affordable Housing Reform Legislation

At the end of the 2023 Legislative Session a sweeping reform of New Jersey’s affordable housing program was introduced in both houses. With the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate President signed on as sponsors, the bills were intended to be fast tracked during lame duck. As I testified in the three Committees that heard the bill in rapid succession, the bill was on a collision course with the Highlands Act. There were no provisions that recognized the Highlands Act’s defining the Highlands as a limited growth region or in recognizing the environmentally sensitive features mapped by the Highlands Council that are not protected by State regulations, such as prime groundwater recharge areas, steep slopes, upland forests, karst topography, vernal pools and Highlands Open Water buffers. These features are protected in the conformed Planning Area by Highlands RMP-consistent municipal ordinances.

The Highlands Act charged the Highlands Council with determining the amount of human disturbance the region could sustain without putting at risk the Highlands region’s ability to provide 70% of New Jersey’s population with a sustainable, affordable supply of drinking water. The Council had identified and mapped certain environmental features that were demonstrated to provide the natural functions and ecological values that either collected, filtered, conveyed, or stored the Highlands water supply. The Highlands Council looked at the developable land available, subtracting from it the sensitive features it had mapped, then generated Municipal Build Out reports for each of the Highlands 88 municipalities, determining the maximum number of new residential and commercial units that could be constructed while sustaining the region’s water resources.

The affordable housing legislation did not provide the Highlands Council with the authority to determine the maximum number of units that could be built in the Highlands Region. Rather, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) had the authority to determine the regional housing need and each municipality’s fair share obligation. In calculating the numbers, environmentally sensitive lands could be subtracted from their vacant land analysis, but without any deference to the Highlands Council and the environmentally sensitive areas that they alone protect it would appear only those environmentally areas protected under State regulations would apply. Despite our testimony at three Committee hearings our concerns went unheeded. But it appeared all other interested groups voicing concerns were also ignored. However, we reached out to Senator Bob Smith, a senior senator and prime co-sponsor of the Highlands Act. He agreed that the bill needed to slow down, that much more public testimony needed to be heard and considered before the bill could be finalized. He prevailed upon one of the prime Senate sponsors, Troy Singleton, to put the brakes on the Senate version. The Assembly, however, went ahead and passed the bill. The Legislative session expired without a Senate vote, effectively stopping the bill.

We also had a lengthy call about our concerns with Assemblyman McKeon’s chief of staff. Assemblyman McKeon would be taking his seat in the Senate in the next session, which would begin in the coming week. As the 2024 Legislative Session began both the Senate and Assembly versions of the bill were re-introduced and hearings were again scheduled in both Houses. Ian testified this time at the Senate Housing & Urban Affairs Committee.

Meanwhile, Adam Gordon, Executive Director of the Fair Share Housing Center, the driving force behind the legislation, and David Smith, who had worked on the bill for the Senate Majority Office reached out to us, offering to hear our concerns. In the course of 3 days Ian and I had several meetings. In between our meetings we consulted with Ben Spinelli to ensure the Coalition and Council were in alignment. Why was Fair Share so accommodating? Ben told us that Senator McKeon told Adam and David if they wanted his vote they had better make us happy. In the end we got everything we asked for.

The bill was amended to include language that:

1. For conformed municipalities in the Highlands Planning Area, environmentally sensitive areas, as provided in the Regional Master Plan and as determined by the Highlands Council, would be excluded from the vacant lands analysis.
2. That municipal fair share housing obligations for conformed municipalities in the Highlands Planning Area, the number of units (both market rate and affordable) would not exceed the number of units determined by the Highlands Council’s latest Municipal Build Out Reports.

The bills, with our amended language, passed in their respective chambers on Monday, March 18. It is expected the Governor will sign the bill into law.

 

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