Defying attempts to kill it off, the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing met for the first time in more than two years Wednesday and began the process of taking at least $142 million in funds dedicated to low- and moderate-income housing to help balance the state budget.
COAH has few friends in Trenton, and was reorganized out of existence in 2011 by Gov. Christie. But last August, a court breathed new life into it.
On Wednesday, the council voted, 4-1, to ask municipalities to send proof of their plans to spend any money that was dormant in their affordable housing trust funds for four years as of July 17, 2012, and transfer uncommitted amounts to the council by May 22. The move drew protests from housing advocates.
Lisa Ryan, a COAH spokeswoman, said the state would not know exactly how much money had not been spent and is due to the state until the staff begins to get information from municipalities.
Last July, the Department of Community Affairs estimated that amount at $142 million. The Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, which was successful in stopping the DCA from seizing the funds last summer, estimates the amount at more than $150 million.
"Today's money grab shows where the governor's real priorities are," said Kevin Walsh, Fair Share's associate director.
According to Walsh, that money could build or renovate over 3,000 homes, which are particularly needed in Shore areas after Sandy.
About $80 million of the money is from towns in the nine counties hit hardest by Sandy, said Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
Christie "fought hard for Congress to approve funding to help our state recover and rebuild, and we all supported those efforts. It is wrong and absolutely mind-boggling that he would then turn around and take money away from those very communities," Berger said.
About 50 municipal leaders, housing advocates, environmentalists, and others attended the meeting, and many spoke against the resolution.
"These towns want to act," said Mike Cerra, senior legislative analyst with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. "They are being held back because their spending plans have not been approved. . . . We have repeatedly asked for guidance but not gotten any answer."
A municipality needs COAH's approval before it can spend money from its trust fund, which comes from development fees.
"How can they take this money when they have not been approving plans?" asked Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Tittel noted how unusual it was to have environmentalists, housing advocates, and municipal officials on the same side of any issue. He said that not only would the taking of the funds delay the creation of more affordable housing, but it would lead to greater sprawl and cost taxpayers more.
Under the state Supreme Court's Mount Laurel decisions, municipalities must provide a fair share of housing for low- and moderate-income residents. Towns can use their affordable-housing trust funds to meet that requirement as they see fit, as long as COAH agrees.
Those that don't can be sued by developers seeking to use the so-called builder's remedy, meaning they can put up four market-rate houses for each affordable unit.
"It shows you just how dastardly this is," Tittel said.
Tim Doherty, the only COAH member to vote against the resolution, said he did so because while a 2008 law gives the state the right to take any funds not spent or committed to be spent after four years, COAH has not given adequate directions to the municipalities.
"Also, since about mid-2011, under the reorganization by Gov. Christie, COAH hasn't met to do any business, and so towns didn't know what they should be doing as to their affordable housing requirements," said Doherty, executive director of Project Freedom, which provides housing and other services for the disabled at four locations.
DCA originally alerted municipal officials of its intent to take the money last June, but the Appellate Division of Superior Court stopped the process, saying only COAH had the right to do so.
Just about every aspect of the state's affordable housing regulations - the trust funds, Christie's disbanding of COAH, the council's housing quotas - are before the Appellate Division or the Supreme Court.
Cerra said it was likely the question of the municipal funds would be back before the Appellate Division.
"Anyone who thinks this is the finale of this issue is mistaken," he said. "It is to be continued."