- Associated Press - Saturday, March 10, 2018

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Two wealthy New Jersey towns will have to provide more housing for poorer residents under a new court ruling, but affordable housing advocates say the decision could also spell more such homes across the state for years to come.

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson’s ruling Thursday that West Windsor and Princeton must allow for greater low- and middle-income housing units is the latest decision in a series of long-running disputes between towns and the Fair Share Housing Center, a nonprofit advocate for affordable housing.

Jacobson’s 217-page ruling is particularly significant because she lays out a statewide requirement of roughly 155,000 affordable housing units through 2025, according to the center. That could give towns still working out their affordable housing obligations clarity on their requirements and lead to more settlements.

“Judge Jacobson’s decision recognizes the very substantial need for homes for working families and people with disabilities in New Jersey,” said Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center. “This ruling sends a strong message to any town still seeking to exclude working families that they won’t succeed.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and Council President Jenny Crumiller, both Democrats, said in a joint statement they’re glad a decision has been reached and think the town’s requirement of 753 units was within their expectations. A message left with West Windsor Township was not immediately returned.

Litigation over affordable housing has gripped New Jersey since 1975 when a court ruled that towns couldn’t use zoning to keep out low-income residents. The issue has pitted advocates for low- and moderate-income housing and poor residents against towns that have argued against lodging requirements in one of the country’s wealthiest states.

The process has largely played out in courtrooms across the state since 2015 when the state Supreme Court said towns’ obligations could be worked out through court settlements instead of through the state Council on Affordable Housing. The Council had ceased to issue new housing rules going back to 1999 and particularly under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who adamantly opposed the state mandating of housing requirements.

Roughly 190 towns have reached housing settlements through courts, but about 100 remain unsettled. Fair Share Housing Center officials say they’re hopeful that Jacobson’s decision will spur more agreements.

The League of Municipalities, an advocacy group that represents the state’s more than 500 cities and towns, keeps a watchful eye on affordable housing issues and has been party to cases before, though not the most recent case.

Michael Cerra, the League’s assistant executive director, said the court settlements have proven costly and time-consuming, noting that the West Windsor and Princeton trial went for about six months. He said towns prefer to have what he called an “administrative option,” or the ability to appeal to a council-like board to set their requirements.

Fair Share Housing Center said it might appeal parts of the ruling it disagreed with, but did not lay those out.

West Windsor had a median household income of more than $167,000 in 2016, and Princeton was at more than $118,000, according to the Census. The same figure for the United States in the same period was more than $55,000, the Census shows.

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