There is no doubt that many New Jersey towns have dragged their feet on spending affordable-housing funds. But that doesn't give the Christie administration the right to seize millions intended to help more families afford homes.
Between $150 million and $200 million in housing money is thought to be at risk if Gov. Christie is allowed to have his way with municipalities' affordable-housing trust funds. That's enough to build or renovate more than 3,000 homes.
Lawmakers should block Christie's maneuver by passing legislation to give towns more time to use the money. Christie vetoed a similar measure last year, but an override should not be out of the question.
Barring a rescue by the Legislature, housing advocates should head back to court to challenge the governor's shameless raid. State Supreme Court rulings are pending in two related cases, but they don't address the trust funds.
Incredibly, the Christie administration has refused to disclose its plans for the money. But the timing of the grab suggests the administration plans to use the funds to balance next year's budget. And it seems unlikely that the money would be used for other housing programs given Christie's poor track record on affordable housing.
The move seems particularly disingenuous in light of Christie's vigorous lobbying for federal funds to rebuild Shore towns devastated by Hurricane Sandy. The bulk of the trust-fund money is earmarked for towns in the nine counties hit hardest by the storm, according to the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill.
The funds at issue were collected from developers to help communities meet their legal obligation to provide housing for families with low and moderate incomes. The requirement is the result of the Mount Laurel housing discrimination cases that yielded a series of landmark state Supreme Court decisions dating to 1975.
For several years, many affluent towns ignored the rules, letting the money collected from developers pile up. Meanwhile, New Jersey remained one of the most economically segregated states in the country.
Christie, too, bears some responsibility for the inaction of municipalities. The state has been too slow to approve some affordable-housing spending plans, and Christie's misguided legal battle to abolish the state Council on Affordable Housing has further complicated already unclear regulations.
State law gave towns four years to determine how they would spend their funds before the money reverted to the state's Affordable Housing Trust Fund. And although Christie created some of the obstacles, he has refused to give the towns more time.
New Jersey can't afford another setback on housing for the poor and disadvantaged. Christie's money grab must be thwarted.