New Jersey Lawmaker Seeks Overhaul Of Housing Laws

By John Celock

A New Jersey legislator is seeking to stop what she says is the “wild west” of zoning with a package of bills that she says is designed to give guidance to local governments in the wake of court ordered affordable housing decisions.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Westwood) has introduced a package of 10 bills to address the state’s affordable housing laws, which have been largely dictated by state Supreme Court rulings. The bills would address what Schepisi says is the court being able to allow developers and affordable housing advocates to push for more development than local governments want to address affordable housing obligations. The debate comes to a head next week when Assembly Republicans again seek to push for Schepisi’s legislation to come to a floor vote over the objections of leaders of the Assembly’s Democratic majority.

“By us not enacting guidelines, it has become the wild west,” Schepisi told The Celock Report about her push for the legislation. “Every community has absolutely no idea how to deal with this.”

A top priority for Schepisi is legislation that would place a moratorium on builder remedy lawsuits against local governments on zoning denials for the remainder of the year. She said this would give “breathing room” for local governments to figure out affordable housing laws and address obligations with developers and affordable housing advocacy groups. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) has said that he will push for the Assembly to vote Monday to pull the bill out of the Housing and Community Development Committee and for an immediate floor vote. A similar motion made by Schepisi in the early morning hours of July 4 was defeated in a largely party line vote.

The affordable housing issue has been a dominant one for the Garden State since the 1970s when the state Supreme Court issued it’s first ruling on the subject and the subsequent creation of the state Council on Affordable Housing. Subsequent rulings have placed affordable housing obligations on municipalities and have set a series of ways to local governments to address the plans, including previous plans that allowed for local governments to pay into a statewide fund to shift their obligation to another community. Current rules have shifted the obligation back to the local governments.

Schepisi has said she has been hearing from communities statewide about the new rules giving developers the upper hand and forcing local governments to accept high-density developments. She said this and the option for developers to push for builder remedy lawsuits following zoning denials led her to champion the issue in Trenton.

The Fair Share Housing Center, which has been leading the litigation efforts for affordable housing in the courts, told The Celock Report that Schepisi’s arguments are off base. Anthony Campisi, the Center’s spokesman, accused Schepisi is “knowingly misleading the public” with her arguments and that the laws and court rulings would not lead to overdevelopment in the state.

“The assemblywoman has been peddling total falsehoods for political purposes,” Campisi said.

Campisi and a Fair Share Housing Center document on Schepisi’s past statements take aim at Schepisi’s comments that the rulings would force 280,000 housing units to be built within nine years. The Center says in their document that the 280,000 number is the total number of “families, seniors and people with disabilities who need an affordable home.” The document further states that Schepisi’s statements are a “scare tactic.” Campisi further described Schepisi’s statements as “one big falsehood.”

Campisi also accused Schepisi of pushing an ideological agenda on the state that would hurt minorities and the disabled.

“What the assemblywoman’s policies would do is reinforce racial segregation in New Jersey and lock working families out of communities,” Campisi said. “There are dangerous impacts from the ideology she is pushing.”

The Fair Share Housing Center joined with the Latino Action Network, the NAACP, Supportive Housing Associates of New Jersey and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey to send a letter to Assembly members urging rejection of Bramnick and Schepisi’s pending motion to move Schepisi’s bill to a floor vote, using similar themes. In the letter the group described New Jersey as “one of the most racially segregated states in the country” and that Republicans were attempting to push “dangerous” legislation in the area.

Schepisi told The Celock Report that the Fair Share Housing Center was causing issues for the state, including what she said is pushing larger housing number in municipalities in order to negotiate settlements with towns for a smaller number that would make it seem like a win to the communities.

Schepisi also took aim at the practice of developers using the local government obligation to force large-scale developments in order to provide a profit over the cost of the affordable housing units. She said this is leading to 900-1000 unit developments in suburban communities.

Campisi defended the Center’s settlements agreements, noting that the Center has negotiated agreements with 120 municipalities in the state, including 10 in Schepisi’s home county of Bergen. He said that the agreements show that local governments want to work with the Fair Share Housing Center and affordable housing advocates to create housing.

Campisi also said that the practice of developers building larger scale developments that including affordable housing set asides – known as inclusionary zoning – is just one option available to communities to build affordable housing. He said that other options that are available including using state and federal tax credits and local affordable housing trust funds to construct affordable housing.

Bramnick has announced plans to make the motion to pull the litigation moratorium bill out of the Housing and Community Development Committee at Monday’s Assembly session. At the July 4 Assembly session to pass the state budget, Schepisi made a similar motion to pull that bill and others in her package up out of the committee for a similar vote. Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee Chairman Jerry Green (D-Plainfield) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) have not scheduled committee hearings or floor votes on Schepisi’s legislative package. On July 4, Schepisi told her colleagues that the issue needed urgent attention by lawmakers.

Schepisi’s July 4 motions were met with motions by Assembly Democrats to table her original motion, a common tactic used by Trenton Democrats against Republican motions. The motion to table Schepisi’s motion passed the Assembly 44-26, on a party line vote. Ten Assembly members – including several Democrats in hotly contested suburban legislative races this year – did not vote on the motion.

Schepisi’s bills have attracted largely GOP co-sponsors but Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) is the lone Democrat to add his name as a co-sponsor. Gusciora voted to table Schepisi’s motion to pull the bill out of committee.

Green and Prieto did not returns messages left by The Celock Report for comment on Schepisi’s legislation. A group of Cranford residents who are opposing a proposed 904-unit development in their community have been calling Green and Prieto’s offices asking for a vote. Schepisi said she’s been hearing from people in Green’s district and noted that Prieto’s Meadowlands-based district is facing development issues.

“I am getting calls from Jerry Green’s own district,” Schepisi said. “If they are calling me they are sure as heck calling him.”

Schepisi said that she hopes that Monday’s effort can be successful. Campisi said that his side is lobbying to kill Bramnick’s coming motion and noted that the July 4 vote should be a good prediction of what will happen Monday.

Bramnick and Schepisi’s attempts to pull the bill out of committee is a common tactic by state lawmakers nationwide in an attempt to force votes on issues being blocked by legislative leaders. Earlier this year, Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita), used the tactic to pull the state’s Medicaid expansion bill out of the House Health and Human Services Committee. Ward’s motion did not receive a vote as GOP legislative leaders moved the bill up for a vote to avoid likely passage of Ward’s motion. Ward also used the tactic in an attempt to pull a gun control bill up for a floor vote. The Kansas Medicaid expansion bill passed the state Legislature but lawmakers did not muster the votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

Schepisi said that among the items in her package is to require the courts to factor in items including the impact of development on local schools and infrastructure in their decisions. The school and infrastructure impact has been used by community members in opposing proposed developments.

Schepisi said the future of New Jersey’s environment is at stake.

“We are the most densely populated state in the entire country. We have the most toxic sites in the country. We have the highest rates of autism in the country,” she said. “We have huge rates of flooding because our ground is saturated. To talk about thousands of units of new housing in a state that is maxed out is environmental suicide.”

Campisi said that the Fair Share Housing Center is pushing plans that help towns. He noted that the Center’s work has taken old industrial parks and strip malls and turned them into “vibrant new communities.” The Center has also noted that the plans have provided new housing in downtowns across the state, bringing foot traffic to downtown areas.

The creation of downtown housing – including in walking distance to train stations – has been a growing trend for over a decade in the Garden State and across the New York metropolitan region. The focus on walk able development near train stations has also been a growth area in other states including around Metro stations in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia and in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.

Campisi said that the Center wants to work with local governments to address municipal obligations and focus on getting “shovels in the ground” quickly on projects. He said the future of New Jersey is at risk.

“New Jersey in general and Bergen County in part is one of the most expensive states in the country and one of the most expensive regions,” Campisi said. “What the assemblywoman is saying to every young couple looking to buy a starter home and every senior looking to stay here is that you are not welcome here.”

While unsure of the fate of Monday’s motion, Schepisi said that she will continue pushing the package as long as she’s in the Legislature. If the bills can pass in the Assembly, she said she is hopeful of state Senate passage, noting that she has received many calls from community leaders in Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-West Deptford) home county of Gloucester. She said that she believes that Gov. Chris Christie (R) will sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office in January.

It is unclear the fate of the bill after Christie leaves office as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy and Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno have largely steered clear of discussing housing policy on the campaign trail. A foundation started by Murphy and his wife, the Phil and Tammy Murphy Family Foundation, is listed among the donors to Fair Share Housing Development, a South Jersey based nonprofit focused on affordable housing development. Fair Share Housing Development and the Fair Share Housing Center were both founded by Peter J. O’Connor.

Schepisi said that if partisanship is what is holding up her bill in Trenton she is willing to allow a Democrat to pass it in order make it more acceptable to Democratic leaders, a common tactic of minority party state legislators around the country.

“This is so important that I am would be willing to take myself off as a sponsor and hand it to a Democrat to get it done,” Schepisi said.