East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov, the president of the League of Municipalities, called the move entirely unfair.“It is really the height of illogic, and a real slap in the face to property taxpayers,” she said.
The state Council on Affordable Housing or COAH met last week for the first time in two years and passed a resolution that would start the process of taking some $142 million in affordable housing funds from towns around New Jersey that has sat unspent since 2008. State officials have said towns have been too slow to spend the money and promised to redirect the funds to various affordable housing efforts.
“I can’t find words strong enough to convey my outrage at the state on this particular matter,” Lawrence Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis said last week.
The state is looking to seize about $9.5 million from Mercer County municipalities, according to 2012 data. Most of the affordable housing money came from contributions required from real estate developers following a Supreme Court decision that led COAH to create regulations in 1992, said Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs.
Towns received letters from the state on May 1 detailing the amount of unspent funds and saying they had until May 22 to either give up the money or contest the assertion that the funds were unused. Towns would have to submit documentation to COAH providing evidence that the funds have been committed to some eligible use, the letter said.Officials in Lawrence railed against the state move at a council meeting Monday, saying they would contest the state’s claim that the town has $1.4 million of unused affordable housing funds.
“It should be pointed out in clear language that really this is the state who refuses to give requirements, goals or rules on the way to spend the next phase of these monies, deciding that the town should give those monies up, and that when they (the state) decide to make rules, whether its a month or ten years from now, we will then have to use taxpayer money to fulfill those obligations,” Councilwoman Lewis said.
“This is an egregious example of the state raiding municipal coffers to find a way to balance their budget, and I cannot say that strongly enough,” she said.Mironov said East Windsor would also contest the state’s claim. She said the town has designated its $2.4 million for “appropriate assignments in terms of housing assistance and a potential development.
”In Princeton, the state says $740,431 in unused funds remains in accounts for the former Princeton Borough, which merged with Princeton Township in January. But Mayor Liz Lempert said the town will contest that claim.
“It’s shocking,” she said. “I understand that we’re all struggling with putting together our budgets and looking for creative ways to find revenue, but grabbing money from town’s affordable housing trust funds is overly creative.
”Town attorney Ed Schmierer said Princeton will respond to the state with a list of ways the money has been spent or committed, including for several initiatives from the old borough. Those included the purchase and rehabilitation of properties on Shirley Court and John Street, he said.
“We believe we can account for the $740,000 and hopefully we will do that to the satisfaction of COAH,” Schmierer said.An updated list of towns’ unspent funds will be released soon, the Department of Community Affairs said Friday. As of July 2012, Ewing had $543,569; Hamilton, $967,165; Hightstown, $224,398; Hopewell Borough, $11,791; Pennington, $301,055; and Robbinsville, $2.9 million. Hopewell Township, Trenton, West Windsor had no unused funds.
The state tried to seize the money last year without going through COAH, but was blocked in court by the Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocacy center in Cherry Hill.
The center’s associate director Kevin Walsh said that the recent COAH process lacked transparency and that the housing council, being absent for the past two years, never provided guidelines or directions for towns on how to use affordable housing money.
“The whole game is one where the government threatens to take the money, but is not willing to say what the rules are,” he said. “This isn’t the way government is supposed to work. There is no other instance where housing advocates and municipalities have united to push back against this administration. It just shows what an outrage it is. The adversaries have become allies.”