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Three Mayors Say NJ Affordable Housing Mandate Needs Oversight

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted February 23, 2023

The Women’s Council of Realtors’ Mercer County chapter invited three central New Jersey mayors to answer realtors’ questions about growth, taxes, affordable housing, and even backyard chickens at a networking event at the Cherry Valley Country Club in Skillman in January.

From left: Princeton Mayor Mark Freda, Montgomery Mayor Devra Keenan, and West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe, PhD, spoke at the Women’s Council of Realtors’ event at Cherry Valley Country Club.

All three mayors agreed on one thing in particular — New Jersey’s affordable housing mandate is driving an overdevelopment of housing in an unhealthy way in many municipalities. While it is making the developers rich, it is not necessarily helping middle class or lower income folks to purchase a home. Mary Ann Pidgeon, a Princeton attorney who specializes in real estate, facilitated a question and answer session with the mayors. “Tell us what you think your most important accomplishment has been for your municipalities,” Pidgeon asked.

Princeton Mayor Mark Freda got right to the issue. “We have a lot of housing being built right now, and it’s been tough to balance what some judge in some court decides that your town should build. “The state has given up ownership of overseeing the affordable housing program throughout the state. It’s terrible. The judge has no experience in this... And to believe a group called Fair Share Housing — which is mostly funded by developers and builders — is somehow really representing the needs of people who need housing, is a farce. “So we have a lot of housing we are trying to build .... “There is an obligation to build it, and I’m firm supporter and believer that we should build affordable housing. However, where it’s being built and how it’s being built — developers are making so much money ... off of this. “If you’re lucky, your town will get the 20 percent of affordable units out of these developments. The rest are market rate.”

Developers are given all kinds of incentives to build this housing. Otherwise, the towns have to pay to build it. Most towns can’t afford to do that. “The process is rigged to make developers richer than they already are.”

Still, Mayor Freda said the way local government has handled it in Princeton has been somewhat successful, though the whole middle class section is “just being decimated, and wiped out.” “Everyday, more and more people leave. There is less and less housing that people can buy in that [price] range. So that means people are trapped in the affordable units. “In reality, you should be able to build up some equity, move up to the next level, and then new people can come in. “Our backlog is thousands of people waiting for affordable units. So the whole system is not working as well as it should. But we keep trying to do our best.”

Montgomery Mayor Devra Keenan added that, “It’s called a builder’s remedy for a reason.” Montgomery is in a similar situation to Princeton, she said. Issues in Montgomery include integrating the affordable and market units. And, keeping green space in the face of large, multi-unit, multifamily developments. “We are looking at environmentally friendly ways of doing developments — and giving people access to green space.”

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West Windsor Mayor Hemant Marathe said that his municipality is building more housing with affordable units than Princeton and Montgomery combined. He said a judge decides the number of units each municipality has to build. The municipal governments do not have much control over it. Entire communities are being built all at once. For example, ending years of litigation, a 24-acre site adjacent to the Princeton Junction train station is being developed as a mixed-use village of 800 residential units, a 120-key hotel, and an upscale retail plaza.

Currently, West Windsor is in a lawsuit with a developer who wants to build affordable units with no windows. “That’s the kind of thing that is happening,” Mayor Marathe said. “We are not against affordable housing, it’s just that affordable housing is being used as leverage to let [developers] do whatever they want. The NJ legislature has just dropped the ball."


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