- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

A New Jersey appeals court ruled Thursday that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration may not seize money that towns had set aside for affordable housing projects, the latest housing-related court ruling to go against the governor.

Starting in 2012, Christie tried to use for the state budget money that towns had charged developers for affordable housing projects but had not spent or committed to spend. No money from the fees is in the current state budget or the one Christie has proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Affordable housing advocates and local governments - group that are often at odds - objected to the plans. A core part of their argument was that the state Council on Affordable Housing was not approving communities’ spending plans - and without state approval, the money could not be spent.

A 2008 state law said towns that didn’t commit to spending their funds on approved plans within four years could be forced to forfeit the money. But according to legal filings, the council has approved just two towns’ plans since 2012.

The three-judge panel court ruling Thursday agreed with the advocates and town governments.

The Fair Share Housing Center says the decision will mean towns can spend a total of nearly $200 million on housing. “Thousands of homes will be built and rehabilitated using these funds,” center lawyer Kevin Walsh said in a statement.

Brian Murray, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said the ruling shows that lawmakers need to overhaul affordable housing laws.

“Until that happens, this broken, patchwork system forced by an activist judiciary will continue to saddle towns with irrational, economically burdensome, and conflicting set of rules for affordable housing,” Murray said in a statement.

The courts have not been friendly recently to the administration’s take on affordable housing policy.

The state Supreme Court ruled in March that judges would take over the job of deciding how much housing for low- and moderate-income residents each town is responsible for having and determining whether its plans to do it are acceptable.

Under Thursday’s decision, the judges are also to be given say over whether towns can spend money in their affordable housing trust funds.

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