Amid objections from municipal officials and housing activists, the Christie administration has begun the process of seizing $150 million or more in subsidized housing money from municipalities around the state.
The governor's office is keeping a tight lid on its policy objectives.
At a meeting Wednesday of the Council on Affordable Housing, council members offered little to assembled housing activists, municipal officials, and their lawyers seeking to retain funds for housing for the developmentally disabled and other low-income people.
Council executive director Sean Thompson declined a request for an interview shortly after the meeting, as did Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the council. The council also declined to provide contact information for its members.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Christie, declined to comment.
"They are trying to give the appearance of complying with the law, but they are setting up a whole system that they intend to exploit," said Kevin D. Walsh, a lawyer with the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, which advocates for low-cost and subsidized housing in communities around the state. "The whole effort is to obfuscate."
On Wednesday, the council began sending letters to municipalities around the state demanding that they turn over funds that they have not yet committed to low-cost housing projects. Estimates of the amount of money that the administration might obtain have ranged as high as $200 million. Hundreds of New Jersey communities have collected the money from developers to help meet their legal requirement, set forth in the state Supreme Court's Mount Laurel housing decisions, to provide for low-cost or discounted housing for low- and moderate-income families.
The Affordable Housing Council has had responsibility for overseeing municipal efforts to comply with those decisions. But the Christie administration has been trying to shut the council down, and its meeting Wednesday was the first in two years. Towns say that as a result, they have gotten little direction from the agency on how to disburse their housing money.
The amounts held by municipal governments can range from as little as a few thousand dollars, as in the case of Linwood in Atlantic County, which according to state records has slightly more than $6,000, to a million or more, as in the case in Galloway Township, which reported holding $1,678,977.
While the administration has declined to discuss what exactly it intends to do with the money, the timing of the letters suggests that it plans to bolster state finances in the budget year beginning July 1. One COAH member said at Wednesday's meeting that at least some of the money taken by the state would be used for low-cost housing.
But the Fair Share Housing Center insists that is a ruse, contending that the money will be diverted to other purposes.
"If the state takes $200 million in trust funds, there will be a net loss of $200 million available to develop housing for lower income families in New Jersey," the center said in a newsletter released Friday.
Christie sought to abolish the affordable housing counsel by executive order shortly after taking office but was blocked by a state appellate panel.
Since then, the council has languished. The council and the Mount Laurel decision have long been sore points for conservatives who bridle at the notion that a court can force municipal governments to alter zoning plans for the purposes of low-income housing and require developers to pay for it. Yet, with the Christie administration evidently unwilling to discuss its policy regarding COAH, it's not at all clear that its motives are ideological.
Walsh contended that the current policy was merely an effort to find money for one-time fixes for budget holes.
"It's a money grab," he said.
The housing activists and others who attended Wednesday's meeting kept clear of legal and budgetary issues, focusing instead on what they said would be the human impact of taking the money away from municipalities that planned to build housing for the poor and disadvantaged.
Joan Migton, mother of a 30-year-old autistic woman, said her daughter would need some form of supervised housing once Migton no longer was able to care for her. State waiting lists for such housing already are long, she said. And she said the problem would get worse if Mount Laurel housing funds were taken from municipal governments and used for other purposes.
"While I'm healthy, I'd like to transition her into a home or a setting in a positive manner so that she can learn to live independently, and the future I would see for her would be bright," Migton said. "But as the system exists, her future has nothing positive about it. The first step to solving this problem is to create more housing units. And in some ways that is in your hands."
Contact Chris Mondics