Despite more than 200 towns settling affordable housing agreements, many more are still grappling with how and when they’ll meet their obligations. One prominent Republican lawmaker is calling out his democratic colleagues, saying he wants the control out of the courts and back in the Legislature. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron sat down with Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.
Aron: Assemblyman, you’ve held three town halls on affordable housing in the past few months. Why that issue?
Bramnick: Because the Legislature won’t do anything about it. This has been in the courts. The courts have told the Legislature you need to address this issue. They haven’t done it, so consequently you have judges with no experience in planning and communities making determinations of thousands of units going into towns that I represent and all over the state. It’s absurd.
Aron: Are the judges ordering that housing be built in the suburbs?
Bramnick: Yes, and to be honest with you, they do it pursuant to some formula. It should be done pursuant to policy of the Legislature, not dictate of the court.
Aron: I sat through a hearing where the issue was pretty well aired out, and you were part of that hearing. Kevin Walsh of Fair Share Housing testified that day that a large part of what this is about is the desire of municipalities to keep minorities out of suburban towns. What’s your view on that?
Bramnick: Ridiculous. Every meeting I’ve had is bipartisan. You have very liberal Democrats at that meeting and conservative Republicans, but they agree on one thing. If you’re going to bring 1,000 new units into a community and have thousands of new students in the schools, it has to be done in a reasonable way. And just saying build 1,000 units in a small town is ridiculous. You have to determine where these units should go on a regional basis. And no one is trying to exclude anyone. It’s about over development, because they’re surely happy to build affordable housing. How about this one? Affordable housing is not really what’s being built. What’s really being built are, let’s say, 1,000, and of that, maybe 150 or 200 are affordable. If the developers are so committed to affordable housing, just build the affordable housing and you won’t have an issue with the municipalities. It’s the other 800 units which are the problem.
Aron: I think the finances don’t work for the builder in that case.
Bramnick: That’s what I understand, but maybe there needs to be a program where we put affordable housing in, but it’s on a limited basis. Remember, most of these units being built are not affordable, so why doesn’t the Legislature look at that? I’ll tell you why. They’re afraid of the issue.
Aron: You’re saying that the Legislature should create something like the Council on Affordable Housing [COAH] that it created in 1985 and that everyone learned to hate, very quickly, when COAH started imposing quotas on towns all around the state. COAH died of its own volition, of its own lack of momentum. What should the Legislature do?
Bramnick: Well, first it should be regional planning, not town by town. So you take a section of Central Jersey, for example, and you say, ‘OK. What is the best place with transportation and infrastructure to put housing?’ Obviously you can allot some to different municipalities, but to do it town by town is very difficult, especially by the courts. We use to have regional contribution agreements, meaning that we could transfer some of the responsibility to urban municipalities.
Aron: And Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts said this is racist and get away with them because everybody was sending their money to Camden and Newark to build the housing there so they could get out of their obligation in the suburbs.
Bramnick: Well, first, it wasn’t all housing. It was a small percentage of housing, and the urban mayors liked the fact that they can rehabilitate certain buildings. The real question is it shouldn’t be in the courts, so my questions to the Democratic majority is why are you leaving it in the courts? I’ll tell you why, because I think the suburban legislators, and some urban legislators on the Democratic side, are afraid of this issue. It’s a complicated issue. One they will not address. They’d rather just have the courts do it and ignore it, and that is creating expense, litigation costs and bad results.
Aron: Let me ask you quickly about a couple of other things. Senate President Steve Sweeney has a task force that’s supposed to report very shortly looking at the finances of the state. Is that going to have a big impact, or that going to go the way of many other task force reports?
Bramnick: Well, Steve Sweeney being the president of the Senate, I don’t think anyone is going to ignore that report. And I think Steve Sweeney was ahead of the curve when it came to pension reform. Before there was a Republican governor, he was on that. His life was threatened. So I think he is somebody who has some common sense solutions. I don’t think it’ll be ignored, and I don’t think Gov. Murphy at his peril would ignore what Steve Sweeney is doing.
Aron: He just went to Italy the same week Sweeney was supposed to unveil what his package was. But be that as it may, quickly, Bob Hugin. We’ve learned that the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, fought to keep women out of his dining club when he was at Princeton and even after when he was the alumni president of the club. How much damage does that do to him as a candidate for Senate?
Bramnick: Thirty, 40 years ago he was on an issue which I’m sure he regrets, but I’ll tell you this. He is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage. This is a guy who’s, in my judgment, a moderate Republican against a very troubled Democratic senator, Bob Menendez. I would say that the voters are ready for change when it comes to Bob Menendez. I wouldn’t worry about Bob Hugin, and he’s got the resources to make sure the message gets out. That’s good.