To the Editor:
Affordable housing discussions have taken center stage in the Township and in other towns. As such, there have been numerous remarks alluded to by Township Committee members and others in the public sphere, that what has been decided by the present Township Committee in 2019, i.e. giving away the Municipal Building, was somehow agreed upon by previous committees in the settlement of December 2018.
With such a controversial issue and members of the Township Committee looking for cover it comes across as an Obama-like defense, it was George Bush’s fault. To continue to propagate that idea though is a perversion of the truth and completely inaccurate. Throughout 2018, in discussions, both public and in private executive sessions, in dealing with the affordable housing issue the municipal building was never on the table, never discussed with the judge as an option, nor as a solution to the settlement that was agreed upon. The settlement is a public record. Had it been, my remarks prior to voting no anyway would have taken a much different tone and sentiment.
A second narrative that is being pushed by some is that previous Township Committees, somehow didn’t do what they were supposed to do, and we are now paying the price for our past carelessness. Prior to today’s court-ordered negotiations dealing with affordable housing, the State of New Jersey had what was known as the Council on Affordable Housing or COAH, which started in 1985. There were three prior rounds of COAH and technically we are still in the third round. Before the third round became dysfunctional and the courts stepped in, the Township of Chatham met every legal obligation under those rounds, and we actually carried over credits, which are being used in the most recent negotiation.
These are not easy decisions and there are no easy answers when dealing with affordable housing, but to portray our current situation as negligence from previous Township Committees is nothing more than a political obfuscation tactic and a deflection of owning up to the decisions that are currently being made and will be made by today's Township Committee.
At the November 14th Township Committee meeting, it was ironic that so much conversation and time was spent discussing how there was no other land, no other sites, no other opportunities for affordable housing to be built in the Township, yet if the Township Committee chooses to go forward we need to build a new municipal building somewhere. If there are no other options, then why was the municipal building ever an option? Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) does not have the power or authority to even suggest that we abandon our municipal building to serve their needs. Shouldn’t the interests of the residents be put first over the interests of FSHC? A key point in all of this, including the proposed developers' fee, which is really a residential fee, is that the New Jersey Fair Housing Act states that nothing shall require a municipality to raise or expend municipal revenues in order to provide low and moderate-income housing.
On a broader front, since March 2015 when the courts took control of affordable housing, Municipalities have had a gun pointed squarely at their head. Facing the threat of lawsuit, untold legal costs ahead and every aspect of the law working against them, dealing with it has been a daunting task. Fair Share Housing Center has been on a march across the state, the likes of which have not been seen since Sherman marched across Georgia, terrorizing the people into submission. This time it is municipalities that are being brought to their knees.
The Mt. Laurel decision’s original intent was to allow people who live in their town to stay in their town. How far we have drifted from that original premise. Legislators, if they were doing their job, would focus on providing housing to our Veterans, disabled and our municipal workers and volunteers below the income threshold. But that’s not how the program works. FSHC press releases will tell you it’s about helping seniors, the disabled, and others, but it is not. There is no incentive for that, no encouragement and it is not part of the mandated marketing efforts.
To make matters worse, our legislators in Trenton have abandoned the fight, leaving the towns to fend for themselves and to find ways to offset the costs. Like most government that gets funded in NJ, that will come in the form of higher property taxes, and higher property taxes lead to lower home values. It is as simple as that. The legislature has not offered anything in the way of proportionally offsetting the costs to municipalities when it comes to services and schools. If you don’t think this is political, guess again. Some 50-plus bills have been introduced by Republicans on Affordable Housing, only to die a slow death in committee, never reaching the light of day.
Our representative, Mila Jasey, (D) sits on the Affordable Housing Committee in the Assembly, but have you ever heard her talk about the issue of how it impacts towns. It doesn’t serve her purpose to do so. She and every other member of the Legislature in both parties need to be called out on their neglect to address the issue. However, affordable housing is not just a Republican issue, it is a state issue. Regardless of political makeup, many towns would welcome development and actually have areas that are in real need of real redevelopment, not just those designating such so that zoning can be altered to achieve some arbitrary social engineered quota from a shifting GIS spreadsheet.
Fair Share Housing Centers' original numbers for Chatham Township, using the market rate to the affordable equation would allow for a doubling of the amount of housing in the town. Think about that for a minute and then ask yourself, can we really negotiate in good faith with an organization that cares so little for your town. FSHC is not in it for a win-win, just a win, no matter the cost to you.
Factor in the fact that there are 48 municipalities, some building 40 story tall condominium buildings with apartments starting at a million dollars. Their required affordable housing share, zero. Why, because they are a municipal aid town and affordable housing is optional for them. Why should they bother, just force it all into the suburbs, jobs, public transportation, doesn’t matter, that’s not really the goal. New Jersey leads the nation in people leaving the state not because we have an affordable housing problem. Rather, it has an affordable taxation problem. Maybe if Trenton fixed the latter, affordable housing wouldn’t be as big an issue.
When conservatives speak about limited government, this is the exact opposite. When you hear constitutionalists or originalists speak about judicial activism, the courts going beyond their bounds and usurping the power of the rightful body to enact law, the legislature, this is it. If you ever wondered what crony capitalism looks like, this is it. Fair Share Housing Center is the conduit used in enabling corporate welfare, welfare for the rich and cronyism of the highest order. It allows builders to enter your town and do what they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to, overdevelop your town in the name of Affordable Housing.
What is taking place all over New Jersey is what Frederick Bastiat labeled legal plunder. In simple terms, legal plunder is when the government, through law and sometimes backed by force, takes from you, what rightfully is owned by you and gives to others what does not belong to them. Bastiat should be required reading by every student, law student and politician in the country. Municipalities are giving away acres of land thinking that it hasn’t cost the town anything. Land has value and when municipal land is turned over for free to satisfy affordable housing the asset and ownership pass to the builder, free and clear. When the builder is done building the project his next stop is to his banker to refinance and in Chatham Township that adds up to millions in his pocket.
Fair Share Housing Center is carrying out a mission they legally are authorized to perform, but in doing so I believe they will end up destroying the state, one town at a time. The legacy of this era, will not be that they did something to make housing more affordable in the state, as Government has a long track record of failure when it comes to providing housing. Some will say this isn’t government housing, but it is, just in a different form. We have failed to learn from the past and this shall be no different. The damage will be done, as they will have succeeded in turning the Garden State into the Garden Apartment State. In doing so they have destroyed what little was left of the American Dream in New Jersey. No longer can a starter home be built on available land. That will have to be subdivided into 20 units to an acre.
FSHC is a bully and bullies only prey on the weak and now is not the time to be weak. If you care about your community and neighborhood, now is the time to fight. To fight for your town, to fight for your property and home values, to fight for what you have earned and have a right to protect. The weak will cave and with it their towns will suffer and decay while those who stand strong and united, acting intelligently will prosper and thrive. But in this fight, we should not pit neighbor against neighbor, nor neighborhood against neighborhood.
The answer is not in solving the problem that satisfies one over the other, rather a solution that is best for all. That solution may mean letting the free market take its course and potentially expose the town to a builder’s remedy lawsuit. Unlike other towns, who have builders remedy lawsuits waiting in the wings, we have not had any since we started this process and to my knowledge still do not have any. That probably is reflective of the analysis the Township Committee has done and commented on at the last meeting about little to no land available.
We should not fear lawsuits as they are at times the cost of doing business and taking on the taxing power of a municipality is not always in the best interests of a private party. A builder still has to buy the land, still go through the planning board process, still conform to reasonable zoning densities. If we end up in the same place as to where we started well at least we fought the good fight. I am not offering myself as an expert on these matters, but rather now might be the proper time for a more thorough conversation and analysis on the risk-reward if we were to just walk away. It is an option. It is what I had suggested and wanted to do since the beginning.
If we fail, twenty years down the road, and more likely three to five, when you are looking for someone to blame for overcrowded trains, congested local roads and interstates, higher taxes, stormwater drainage issues, lower property values and an overall diminished quality of life throughout your town and the state of New Jersey look no further than those who have continually failed us in the State Legislature. Don’t try to find them in New Jersey however, because they will probably all be living on a golf course in Florida with lawyers from FSHC, built by a New Jersey developer friend who made a fortune destroying your town. The rest of us poor schleps will still be here, left to deal with it.
Kevin Sullivan, former Chatham Township Mayor, and committee member