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Monday, May 20, 2024

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Middle Reaffirms Commitment to Affordable Housing

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By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – Middle Township Committee June 21 publiclyresponded to the affordable housing litigation initiated by the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) by reaffirming its intention to voluntarily comply with its affordable housing obligations.
The action by the committee was more than a restating of its commitment. The municipality spelled out its position in a long resolution that read almost like a legal brief restructured to fit 34 whereas clauses.
The municipality stated it has never wavered from the path of voluntary compliance since it filed for declaratory judgment, in 2019. The resolution made the case for continued immunity from exclusionary zoning lawsuits. It also defended nine recent zoning changes adopted from recommendations in the municipality’s decennial Master Plan Reexamination Report.
According to the resolution, the municipality envisioned “sequential actions” in which the broad zoning changes adopted by the governing body would be followed by “targeted rezoning on parcels that require affordable housing.”
The bottom line in the resolution was that the municipality remains committed to meeting its affordable housing obligations. That commitment, municipal officials said, “extinguishes” claims that it must be forced to comply via “exclusionary zoning and builder’s remedy lawsuits.”
The resolution is unlikely to persuade the FSHC to end its efforts to have the court strip the municipality of its 2019 declaratory judgment and any possible immunity from exclusionary zoning lawsuits.
In papers filed with the court, the center argued that Middle uses statements of commitment as a substitute for action on a fair share housing plan. In a letter to the court issued the same day as the municipal meeting, the FSHC debunks Middle’s continued protestations of commitment. 
“It is sad and tellingthat two years after initiating its declaratory judgment action, the best that Middle can rustle up in its defense is hollow statements, but no meaningful actions,” reads the FSHC letter.
Middle points to unavoidable delays in the negotiations over a fair share housing plan, citing the “worldwide Covid pandemic” among other reasons. The FSHC argued that Middle’s inaction dates to the first months of 2019, placing the burden on Middle over a year before any interruption by the pandemic. 
According to FSHC, until it filed its litigation June 1, “The township was totally disinterested in this matter and had done little to put together a compliant fair share plan.”
The two sides to this litigation show few signs that the matter can be resolved without judicial action. The municipality points to its “steadfast commitment,” while the FSHC argues that the municipality “slow rolled this process for years” and demonstrated “no genuine attempt to comply with its constitutional obligations.”
While the dispute is taking the form of a legal contest concerning compliance with established state doctrine, there is a building crisis over the lack of affordable, decent housing in Middle, in Cape May County and beyond. 
Reports and studies of all stripes point to the high percentage of “severely cost-burdened poor households,” to quote from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2021 report, leading many to “sacrifice other necessities, like healthy food and health care to pay the rent.”
The FSHC advocates for these individualswho Middle Township says it is committed to serving. Judge John Porto may have to be the one to figure out how that happens.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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