At the end of the day on Friday, Jan. 25, attorneys for the Fair Share Housing Coalition, based in Cherry Hill, submitted motions to the New Jersey Meadowland Commission (NJMC) and the state's Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). The motions call on these agencies to block Secaucus from buying two parcels of land, one on Farm Road and one on Oak Lane.
The advocacy group said they found out about the matter from a cover story in the Secaucus Reporter two weeks ago.
As reported in that story, the Secaucus Town Council announced at its Jan. 8 meeting that the town had received a $3.1 million grant from the Hudson County Open Space, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Trust Fund last August. They then introduced an ordinance to buy 1.86 acres of land on Oak Lane and another 1.1 acres of land on Farm Road.
Both properties are currently privately owned, and the town's attorney is in discussions with the owners.
The city wants to buy the properties so that they can extend River Walk, a public open space walkway planned along the Hackensack River. The walk would run from Laurel Hill Park to the Meadowlands walkway.
The Secaucus Town Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and final vote on this ordinance at its next meeting on Feb. 12.
Affordable housing instead
If the Fair Share Housing Center gets its way, the land in question could be made available for affordable housing.
However, move could jeopardize the $3.1 million grant from the county, since it must be used for historic preservation and the preservation of open space.
Despite this, the Fair Share Housing Center has requested that the NJMC and COAH "issue scarce resource restraints that...prohibit Secaucus from purchasing the Farm Road and Oak Lane properties," according to documents submitted to the agencies.
The Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocacy and watchdog group that works to ensure that municipalities are following state law, wants the NJMC and COAH to decide on its motion before the Feb. 12 Town Council meeting.
The center and its staff attorney, Kevin Walsh, have long been critical of affordable housing efforts in Secaucus and have tangled with Mayor Dennis Elwell in the past.
According to Walsh, Elwell "is strongly opposed" to affordable housing in Secaucus and has purposely ignored state laws that were put in place to expand it. "There is tremendous growth, both that's planned and currently going on, in Secaucus," Walsh said last week. "Mayor Elwell doesn't want that growth to include affordable housing."
The Elwell administration denies this assertion and even goes as far as to say their affordable housing program should be a model for other municipalities in the state.
"What he is saying is absolutely not true," Town Administrator David Drumeler said last week. "We have actually created more affordable housing units here in Secaucus than most other jurisdictions."
Drumeler points to affordable units in Patriot Commons, the Baker Houses, and planned units in the Fraternity Meadows "Transit Village" project as proof of the mayor's commitment to affordable housing. All three housing communities were developed during his tenure.
There are currently 361 affordable housing units in Secaucus with another 230 to come on the market this summer, according to Affordable Housing Board Administrator Bill Snyder.
The matter may be part of a larger ongoing debate going on in Secaucus right now. The Meadowlands Commission needs to put more affordable housing somewhere in the Meadowlands region in order to meet state requirements. Secaucus is being eyed as a major location for that housing.
Walsh said he would like to see 1,938 affordable housing units in town.
Under state law, municipalities are required to create affordable housing units in proportion to the overall job and housing growth in their jurisdictions. For example, there must be one affordable housing unit created for every seven jobs created, and 20 percent of any residential project must be affordable.
The affordable housing issue has become highly politicized as rents in Hudson County rise faster than the wages of many residents, and the state has begun to apply pressure on municipalities to address the issue by building more affordable units.
"According to U.S. Census Data for 2006, 47 percent of Hudson County renters 66,377 were paying 30 percent or more of their household income on rent, with almost one in four paying more than half their income," said Paul Bellan-Boyer, the chair of the New Jersey Regional Coalition's Housing Task Force. In 2006, he said, median rents in the county were $941. "It takes an annual income of $37,602 to afford that apartment," he said. "That's 101 hours per week working at minimum wage."
This makes housing difficult for many working class people - EMTs, nursing aides, maintenance workers, home health aides, preschool teachers, and many municipal employees - to stay in a community.
"Sometimes people are concerned about the impact affordable housing will have on the community," said Bellan-Boyer. "But study after study has shown that well-implemented mixed income housing is actually a community asset. ...The key is that affordable housing is a part of a stable community - not a low income ghetto on the other side of the tracks."
Bellan-Boyer actually pointed to the planned housing at Secaucus' Transit Village as a good example of how affordable housing should be integrated into a larger development that includes mixed-income housing and other community services.
Snyder said that The Fair Share Housing Center has never seen the town's affordable housing plans up close. He said the motion filed last week grew out of ignorance.
"I'd invite him to come out here and inspect our records and plans," Snyder said. "He really has no idea what's we've done. If he saw for himself, I think he'd want to work with us as an ally rather than attack us."