2023 Council Election Question Two: The Next Round Of Affordable Housing

The affordable housing complex to be built on the Poekel and Cameco lots. This is the architect’s rendering of the main building in the complex.

A sharp increase in Verona’s affordable housing mandate caused by a lapse in housing protocols under Governor Christie made for thorny decisions on affordable housing for the current Town Council. Coping with future mandates are the heart of the second common question for this year’s candidates. Their answers to the common questions are presented in alphabetical order. The second common question was:

Q: How do we get through the next round of state-mandated affordable housing without the cost and confusion of the last round?

Christine McGrath: I really am glad you asked this question because this is really the crux of what the council needs to be working on, especially in the next two years. So first of all, the main thing is that we have to center on our values that we want to maintain, and we want to prevent the overburdening of our school district. The way we do that is by looking at our zoning, and determine where we are most vulnerable to developers coming in as intervenors. And where do we actually want to generate future opportunities? When I talk to residents, there are a lot of residents whose children are no longer in the school district, who are just starting in retirement and they would like to downsize but stay in town. We don’t even have a lot of housing options for them to stay within their social networks and in our great community, using our community center, our library and our pool. So I think we need to marry the mandates from the state of New Jersey with our desire to not overburden our school district. We need to look at opportunities to maybe incentivize projects that meet our needs, and develop the housing that we actually do need for our residents. I think there is a way of turning what is a mandate and flipping it into an opportunity for Verona.

Alex Roman: I would say that we are already in a much better place than we were. What got done in this round of affordable housing really does set the stage for future rounds of compliance. This year or this round, we had a very high burden due to the changes related to age restricted housing. So first off, it’s far less likely that the burden in future rounds is going to be as strong as it was in this round. I do expect that we will need more units. I just don’t expect it to be the same quantity of units.

What we have coming up right now is work left to be done in terms of all of our compliance items from this round. We have to pass the Affordable Housing and Development fee ordinances. We have the housing element of the Fair Share Plan. We have the affirmative marketing plan and the spending plan coming up. All of these elements are targeted towards compliance going forward. The other big thing is the additional TCM overlay zone, the Montrose-South Prospect zone where we can develop another fourteen units of affordable housing, they’re out of seventy promotable on that site, assuming that someone actually purchases any of that land and consolidates it into this new project. But we are zoning for it. So we’re in a much better space to where we will probably have less of a surprise this time around I would say. We also have a set aside ordinance that we put into place.

So anything that’s multifamily that generates five or more new units has satisfied requirements. That’s what we’ve done already. The other big thing that we need to look at, and this ties into the Master Plan as a whole, are some of the recommendations that were made regarding the town center zone. The zoning there essentially makes it very, very challenging for new housing to be developed without it being under a variance process. Because while we allow three story buildings, we do require the equal distribution of uses for mixed uses and as a result, nothing gets redeveloped down there simply because it doesn’t economically make a lot of sense to build only two story buildings. You can’t really functionally build a three story building with a 50/50 mixed use. So that’s one of the things that we want to look at as a potential change that can help generate affordable housing units or at least allow for zoning to make them realistically developable. Not changing the maximum height of the buildings, not changing the size of the building that could be developed, but simply making it so that someone could potentially develop a building realistically that had two storys of housing over one story of commercial. I would only do that in the town center zone, not in the extended Town Center Zone.

The character of those zones are very different, but that’s a good way of allowing us to have additional developable use going forward. The other big thing that we need to do is keep preserving open space. That’s another very powerful strategy because it lessens our realistic development potential. So even if we are given a high number of affordable housing units for a need, they still look at our total RDP. (RDP is essentially a cap on what can truly be developed versus the need for affordable housing.) Conserved lands that are protected by a steep slope ordinance can essentially make it so that there’s a certain amount of development that can’t happen even if there is a need for affordable housing. You still may end up with an unmet need, if you don’t have land that can be developable. So anytime that we’re preserving land in terms of open space that is actually a protective element going forward as well. So I think that has to play into our strategy. We did very well in terms of preserving a lot of open space both through land acquisition and through a land donation recently and we need to keep looking for those opportunities going forward.

When you refer to the property on the south side of Bloomfield Avenue below South prospect, is that primarily the old IHOP lot or is that bigger than that?

Alex Roman: So as part of the settlement in this round with Fair Share, in addition to the development projects that are actually being done, one of our other requirements was to create one more overlay zone within town to allow for the potential of future development. We looked at several sites. The one that we landed on was essentially Bloomfield between Montrose and South Prospect. We are defining the Town Centre mixed use overlay zone there that allows for increased density in that zone. There is not a project on the table and in fact, all of those lots are principally owned by separate owners, but we had to declare an additional potential redevelopment zone as part of this round’s compliance. But that helps us out because now there’s a possibility of developing 14 more age-use units if needed. You have to have a willing seller and a willing buyer, and someone that sees an economic development project there but being able to do that helps us even if it does, or does not get built at any point in time in the near future. That creates the potential for affordable housing development in the future.

Christian Strumolo: While the cause of that confusion was again neglect, the state was on top of the township of Verona year after year after year, and they waited, waited and waited. And then they finally have to purchase the piece of property which I think was above and beyond what the property’s worth. And my understanding is, the affordable housing they did was two rounds of affordable housing. And now we’re kind of caught up to where we should be. I understand that in 26, I think possibly, we’re gonna have maybe our third round. But again, these are issues that didn’t happen overnight. And now all of a sudden it’s a huge priority to accomplish.

Well, in a way, sir, they did because the rules for affordable housing changed under Governor Christie. Before that, they had been taken care of by the Fair Share Housing Center. Cities in New Jersey knew what to expect with coming rounds. All of that went out the window with Governor Christie. And so we had to wait a long time to find out what those new rules are.

Christian Strumolo: Well, we have Alex is there eight years. Christine? Is there four years. Under the Murphy administration, it was very clear-cut what he expected for townships like Verona to get done. And as of today, there’s not one affordable housing unit built, not one. You can purchase all the properties you’d like and have Council meetings and closed sessions. But the bottom line is nothing’s been done. The ground has not been broken. There’s no units out there available for our residents that are in need to possibly, you know, apply for those apartments.