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Statement on Lambertville Fair Share Plan

Posted by Anthony Campisi on April 23rd 2020

A statement from Fair Share Housing Center Executive Director Adam Gordon

Given the significant attention to the plans for affordable housing in Lambertville, Fair Share Housing Center wishes to address how the current Fair Share Plan being considered by Lambertville evolved over the past five years and statements that have been made regarding Fair Share Housing Center’s positions on affordable housing in Lambertville.

The entire point of New Jersey’s fair housing process is to actually choose sites that will lead to affordable housing. Lambertville has reached the point at which it actually has to make that choice. The City’s plan and ordinances were originally supposed to be finished in January 2019. Since that time, Fair Share Housing Center has been engaged with the City on a number of potential replacements for the Closson site which as detailed more below the City wished to replace due to significant public opposition. Fair Share Housing Center would have been willing to continue with the prior settlement terms as to the Closson site but also has worked with the City to explore a number of alternatives to that site.

Over the past year plus, the City has proposed three different alternatives to the Closson site: the YMAC and Napa Auto site, the CVS site, and the Police Lot redevelopment plus accessory apartments. However the City told us that they – and in some cases the developers –chose not to move forward with the Closson and YMAC/Napa Auto site due to significant public opposition.

The CVS site initially seemed very promising when we discussed it along with the Police Lot redevelopment as two different alternatives. However, the City investigated the site and found that a lease for CVS through 2027 prevents the site from being a realistic option for affordable housing any time in the foreseeable future. A site that cannot actually yield any affordable housing for many years would not be acceptable from Fair Share Housing Center’s view, which we made clear to the City. That left the Police Lot redevelopment plan, with an appropriate timetable for construction, plus accessory apartments as the site the City and Fair Share Housing Center included in the amended settlement agreement in January 2020, after several other alternatives were either shot down by public opposition or deemed infeasible for actually producing affordable housing.

As to the Sierra Club’s April 13, 2020 press release, I did speak to Jeff Tittel, Director of the Sierra Club who I indeed, as he states, have known for a long time. I respect the Sierra Club’s work and we have long tried to work together to ensure affordable housing is developed in a way that is consistent with the State Plan and key environmental policies of the State. I did not review or approve the quotes in that press release or know that he was quoting me in talking with him, and the quotes do not accurately reflect what I said. I also just became aware that the Sierra Club sent out an action alert quoting me. Neither I nor anyone else at Fair Share Housing Center knew of, reviewed, or approved this action alert.

As to the statements in the press release and the action alerts, as clarified above, we did in fact have a prior agreement which we would have continued to honor, but the public opposition to the Closson site did indeed lead the City to request removing that site, which we were open to doing if a replacement site or sites was provided for the 10 affordable units on the site. The City, not Fair Share Housing Center, initially suggested the CVS site, which indeed we thought would be a very good site, but for the reasons stated above the City ultimately determined that the site was not actually realistic for development anytime in the near future, which made it unacceptable to both the City and Fair Share Housing Center.

Also, while the Closson site is currently part of the Fair Share Plan (but will be removed under the amended settlement agreement for the reasons described above), the CVS site, while indeed mentioned as a potential redevelopment site in the City’s Master Plan, is not currently part of the City’s adopted or proposed Fair Share Plan.

Fair Share Housing Center looks forward to working with the City on moving forward to getting much-needed affordable homes built in Lambertville. The remainder of this document gives a more detailed overview of how we got to the point where we are today.

Background on filing of the Declaratory Judgment Action

From 1999 to 2015, the state’s fair housing laws went largely unenforced. These laws require every community to as part of its master plan to incorporate planning and zoning that provides a realistic opportunity for the community’s fair share of low- and moderate-income housing.

The results of this lack of enforcement were devastating for lower-income families in New Jersey. During this period, rents rose twice as fast as income and home prices rose three times as fast as income – even after accounting for the 2008 recession. That made New Jersey unaffordable for many renters and first-time homebuyers. Today, when new family affordable housing is built, there are routinely 10 or more applicants for every available new home.

After 15 years of gridlock in Trenton, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered COAH to come up with a new set of legal rules that would pass legal muster. When COAH and the Christie administration failed to adopt rules by a series of court-imposed deadlines, the court in 2015 issued a unanimous ruling acknowledging that the agency was unable to do its job and returning enforcement of New Jersey’s fair housing laws to each county’s trial courts.

Lambertville, like over 340 other municipalities in New Jersey, then filed a plan seeking voluntary approval of its fair share plan in July 2015. Such filings are voluntary, but if the court approves a plan it protects towns from lawsuits from builders, which can require a municipality to allow for homes in areas it would prefer to leave off limits. The plans filed in 2015 cover housing needs retroactively to 1999 and forward to 2025 – a 26 year period.

Nearly five years after that process started – and over two decades after the start of the housing needs addressed by the process — about 320 municipalities that filed have reached settlements as to how to address those housing needs; fewer than 25 in the entire state of the cases originally filed in 2015 have not been resolved. In the three-county court system that Lambertville is a part of, which encompasses Hunterdon, Somerset, and Warren Counties, there are no outstanding municipal cases filed in 2015 that have not been settled.

Community leaders including leaders of the Southern Burlington County and Camden County NAACP and civil rights attorneys founded Fair Share Housing Center in 1975 after winning the original case against Mount Laurel Township that was the genesis of New Jersey’s fair housing laws. Since that time, we have worked to enforce New Jersey’s fair housing laws, and we have been involved both first in seeking for 15 years the enforcement of the law when it was not happening and then in making sure over the past five years the law actually gets enforced and effective plans are developed.

Initial Settlement with Lambertville

After several years of negotiation with former Mayor DelVecchio and the City’s professionals at the time, Fair Share Housing Center reached a settlement with the City on May 22, 2018. The key components of that settlement to create additional affordable housing in the City were as follows:

  • Lambertville High School Redevelopment: The Lambertville High School site was required to be redeveloped for a mixed-income development twenty-eight (28) affordable, family rental apartments. At that time, the City anticipated condemning the site after failing to reach agreement with the landowner on a plan to develop the site.
  • Overlay zoning for the Closson Farmstead: This zoning provided that if this site were ever developed, they would be required to include an affordable housing set-aside of 15-20% of total homes developed.
  • Burd Farmstead and Corboy Property: This zoning provided that if these sites were ever developed, they would be required to include an affordable housing set-aside of 15-20% of total homes developed.
  • Overlay zoning for the former Trenton Cracker Factory/River Horse Brewery: This zoning provided that if this now vacant sites were ever redeveloped, it would be required to include an affordable housing set-aside of 15-20% of total homes developed.

This settlement was approved by the court after a public hearing in September 2018.

Opposition to Closson Site

When City Council began to consider rezoning ordinances for Closson, there was significant opposition given the site houses a home in which George Washington had stayed during the Revolutionary War. The City initially consulted with Fair Share Housing Center as to whether a zoning ordinance that preserved the home and clustered the development around it would be acceptable, which we agreed would be acceptable, but that drew opposition as well. On February 7, 2019, Judge Miller directed the then-lawyer for the City, Brian Shotts, to provide a written status update to the court and all parties by February 14 on the status of implementing the court’s order. In that report, Mr. Shotts wrote as to the Closson site “[T]he Historic Preservation Commission stepped in heavily to lobby against passage of the overlay ordinance, despite the fact that the revised ordinance excluded those structures the Historic Preservation Commission mistakenly believed were included on the State’s Historic Preservation list. Certain affected property owners also ceased supporting the overlay based upon the volume of hate mail they received. The City’s governing body therefore chose not to bring the overlay ordinance to a vote. At present, the City’s new administration is considering alternatives to the properties considered in the original overlay ordinance and is presently working through the process.”

YMAC and Napa Auto Sites

Because of the opposition to the Closson site, on May 2019, the City proposed alternatives to the Closson site to Fair Share Housing Center and the court. The Closson site, if developed, would have created about 10 affordable homes. To substitute for that site, the City proposed developments on the Young Men’s Athletic Club (YMAC) site and the Napa Auto site. Fair Share Housing Center had agreed to allow for this change in the plan per the City’s request.

However, the City stated there was then significant community opposition to both the YMAC and Napa Auto site, and following such opposition the owners of both sites decided to not pursue the development further. CVS and Police Station Proposals

The City then came up with another two potential proposals in a meeting with Fair Share Housing Center on October 2, 2019, one involving a redevelopment of the CVS site and another involving the redevelopment of the police station lot.

Fair Share Housing Center at that meeting expressed that either of those sites could provide a reasonable replacement for the Closson site. Fair Share Housing Center, however, also expressed concern about the timetable for both of these lots, which unlike either the YMAC site and the Napa Auto site were not imminently going to be proposed for developments. The City at this meeting represented to Fair Share Housing Center that CVS had a lease through 2027 at that site; unless that lease were changed that the site would actually produce affordable housing in the near future. Fair Share Housing Center took the position that unless there was an actual likelihood that the CVS site could produce affordable housing in the nearer term, it was not an adequate substitute for the Closson site. Fair Share Housing Center asked the City to investigate whether there was any way to develop the CVS site given that lease commitment in the nearer term.

Obviously the development of the police station site would require the relocation of the police station; without a realistic timetable and plan for doing so, this would be more of a plan on paper than anything realistic. When a municipality itself is in control of the land that it proposes to develop, there generally needs to be guarantees and timetables to ensure that the development actually happens – a frequently used timetable for municipally-sponsored development is two years to the start of construction. Because of the unique challenges of relocating the police station first before development would become possible, we agreed in the context of settlement to allow for a longer timetable than two years, through 2023.

Fair Share Housing Center and the City then had a follow up conversation on November 5, 2019. In that conversation, the City advised that it did not see a path to making the CVS site realistic based on further conversations. Thus, the City wanted to focus on the police station redevelopment. The City, however, advised that it may not be possible to replace the entire 10 units from the Closson site on the police station site and suggested to make up part of the 10 units by funding an accessory apartment program in the downtown, which Fair Share Housing Center agreed to consider pending further information.

Revised Settlement and Compliance Hearing

That conversation set in motion the basic framework for the amended settlement agreement that the City and Fair Share Housing Center ultimately agreed to on January 29, 2020, which replaced the Closson overlay with two new aspects of the plan – five accessory apartments in the downtown and five affordable homes as part of the police station redevelopment.

The court has scheduled a public fairness and compliance hearing to review everything but the redevelopment plan for the police station for May 12, 2020. The City can then proceed with redevelopment plan for the police station in a timeframe to be established by the court thereafter, so long as it actually leads to at least 5 affordable homes and can be developed on a realistic timetable by 2023.