BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Each week leading to the November 8 election, the candidates running for Berkeley Heights Township Council have the opportunity to answer question(s) that will be run in a series by TAPinto Berkeley Heights.

The following answers are from Democratic candidate Stephen Yellin for Week 4.

The council recently voted on the affordable housing resolution and related settlement agreement. The law in the State of New Jersey as established by the NJ Supreme Court in 1975 is that every municipality must identify and sponsor its own fair share of the purported regional need. Compliance is not optional. Are you satisfied with how the council handled the settlement? If so, why? If not, how would you have handled the township's obligation differently?

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When it comes to Berkeley Heights, this is one issue where both political parties are in full agreement. As the only candidate who’s been actively involved in town government, I’ve watched the Mayor and Township Council discuss and debate this issue for more than 2 years; with that in mind, I fully support the settlement they’ve reached.

To understand how we got to this point, here’s a summary of the situation:

  • Berkeley Heights, along with many towns like ours has a legal obligation to provide a certain amount of “affordable” housing units for citizens who want to join our great town, but who can’t afford market-rate housing. Please note that “affordable” does not mean just low-income; there are 4 categories based on people’s annual income, ranging from middle-class ($60-$70k) down to working-class ($30-$40 k).
  • In 2014, the New Jersey State Supreme Court lost patience with the Council on Affordable Housing’s inability to do their job in ensuring towns were building their fair share of housing units. The Supreme Court struck down COAH and decided every town would have to get a new Affordable Housing plan approved by the courts.
  • The new rules for Affordable Housing, as decided by the Supreme Court, meant that Berkeley Heights suddenly had a larger quota to fulfill. What that quota (to be done over 10 years) should be was disputed, with Affordable Housing activists arguing it should be as many as 860. Developers will try to build housing complexes with a maximum of 15% of its units being affordable. We were therefore looking at the possibility of building over 4,500 housing units if we had fought the decision in court – more than doubling the current number of housing units in all of Berkeley Heights! Since we only have 4 1/2 acres of building land left in town, as I noted at a Council meeting earlier this year, this would have literally changed the landscape of our town.
  • The Mayor and Council chose instead to negotiate. They worked out agreements with a few developers on property the latter already owned, thereby showing the courts that we were acting in good faith. While the details of the negotiations are still under wraps for legal purposes, it is clear that Councilman Faecher (as the Council point person) did an excellent job of keeping a tough, practical stance on the issue when negotiating with developers and affordable housing activists.
  • The Township reached a settlement in early September, and agreed to build 389 affordable units over the next 10 years. Several additional factors, including the agreements already made with developers (such as building a Senior Citizen complex), mean that the actual total we will see being built is much less than that. This “real” total (somewhat less than 200) is one that our schools can safely manage. Many of those who will be joining our town in the years ahead will, I’m sure, become involved in helping our town grow economically and culturally.

This settlement is a good one for Berkeley Heights, especially when compared to similar towns that either haven’t settled or settled prematurely. Jill Zatta and I support affordable housing as a force for economic opportunity for new families looking for their first home who can’t afford to live here, but we could not support the ridiculously large quota we were being asked to meet. We join our opponents in supporting the settlement, and based on what we know would not have acted differently. “Positively Berkeley Heights” means being willing to set partisan politics aside for the good of our town, and that’s the mentality we’ll follow if elected to the Township Council on November 8th.