Jersey City affordable housing ordinance under legal fire

Nonprofit seeks to overturn controversial inclusionary zoning ordinance

The Jersey City Council adopted the ordinance on Oct. 21 despite public opposition with a 7-2 vote. Only Councilman Rolando Lavarro (upper left) and Councilman James Solomon (bottom left) voted against the ordinance's adoption.
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The Jersey City Council adopted the ordinance on Oct. 21 despite public opposition with a 7-2 vote. Only Councilman Rolando Lavarro (upper left) and Councilman James Solomon (bottom left) voted against the ordinance's adoption.

A controversial affordable housing ordinance recently adopted by the Jersey City Council has become the subject of a lawsuit filed by Fair Share Housing Center Inc. in Hudson County Superior Court.

The nonprofit, dedicated to defending the housing rights of New Jersey’s poor and ensuring municipalities provide affordable housing, claims that the ordinance is “deeply flawed” and would provide “lucrative giveaways to politically connected developers without meaningfully addressing the city’s growing housing affordability crisis.”

The ordinance

 In October the Jersey City Council adopted a new inclusionary zoning ordinance with a 7-2 vote despite four hours of public opposition as residents claimed the ordinance did not go far enough to provide affordable housing.

The ordinance requires residential developments to set aside 20 percent of all units as affordable housing for 30 years.

The mandatory affordable housing units would be set aside for households with combined income brackets at 30 percent, 50 percent, and 80 percent of the annual median income (AMI), as defined by Uniform Housing Affordability Controls (U.H.A.C.).

Developers with projects of more than 15 residential units who request five or more additional units or an additional 5,000 square feet of residential floor area through a redevelopment plan amendment or a variance would be required to follow the above provisions.

But the ordinance also offers several loopholes to allow developers to avoid providing affordable housing.

It allows the council to reduce a developer’s affordable housing obligation below the 20 percent mandate, allows developers to provide community givebacks by constructing buildings like public parking garages as well as police and fire stations instead of affordable housing, allows for off-site affordable housing, and allows the council to entirely waive the ordinance’s provisions.

It also allows buyout provisions in which the developer could pay the city between $25,000 and $100,000 per mandated affordable housing unit instead of building the unit with funds going to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

Under the ordinance, even with the loopholes, a minimum of 5 percent of the affordable housing units would still be mandatory and must be provided by the developer onsite regardless of off-site housing, payments in lieu, and community contributions.

Lawsuit filed

The lawsuit filed on Dec. 7 asks the Hudson County Superior Court judge to strike down the ordinance, asserting it violates state law by allowing developers to buy their way out of affordable housing requirements by providing “nebulous community benefits.”

“The members of the Council who supported Ordinance No. 20-089 claimed that it is designed to maximize affordable housing for those low- and moderate-income families in need,” states the complaint. “In reality, Ordinance No. 20-089 grants Jersey City’s municipal officials absolute discretion to trade away affordable housing as part of quid pro quo agreements with favored developers in clear violation of the MLUL and substantial precedent.”

The suit claims that the city council failed to refer the proposed ordinance to the Jersey City Planning Board before approving it, as required by state law, to ensure the ordinance complies with the city’s master plan.

“Instead of following the statutorily mandated process, the City Council rushed to pass Jersey City’s deeply flawed affordable housing ordinance over widespread public opposition even as the city faces an unprecedented crisis that threatens to price out working families from New Jersey’s second-biggest city,” states a press release from the nonprofit.

Rents in Jersey City have increased by more than 13 percent in the five years beginning in 2013 and ending in 2018, according to U.S. Census data.

More than 40 percent of Jersey City homeowners with a mortgage and more than 40 percent of Jersey City renters are cost-burdened, according to U.S. Census data meaning that they are paying more than 30 percent of their household income on housing.

“Jersey City desperately needs an effective affordable housing requirement that protects Jersey City residents from displacement due to gentrification,” said Fair Share Housing Center Executive Director Adam Gordon. “This sham ordinance fails to address Jersey City’s growing affordable housing crisis and gives a pass to politically connected developers, giving them the option of trading away their affordable housing obligations for undefined contributions.”

“State law prohibits this type of quid pro quo arrangement, which invites corruption and shortchanges the working families of Jersey City who are being squeezed by skyrocketing housing costs. Because Mayor Steve Fulop and City Council ignored the unanimous voices of more than 60 community advocates who testified in opposition, and passed an illegal ordinance, we are forced to turn to the courts for relief,” Gordon added.

The suit seeks attorneys’ fees, costs of suit, and other equitable relief as deemed by the court.

For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.