Updated on October 11, 2017 at 10:24 AM
Posted on October 11, 2017 at 8:45 AM
The Modern, one half of a major redevelopment project in Fort Lee. The Fair Share Housing Center is suing the developers for failing to set aside affordable housing. (MICHAEL KARAS)
By Joseph Atmonavage
FORT LEE — A non-profit dedicated to advocating for affordable housing in New Jersey is suing the developers of the largest current development project in Bergen County for their failure to set aside affordable housing units, according to a lawsuit obtained by NJ Advance Media.
In the complaint, Fair Share Housing Center states that they are seeking a declaration from Bergen County Superior Court that Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates, the developers of The Modern — two, 47-story buildings with a total of 900 luxury apartments — is required to provide a 20 percent set-aside of the development as affordable housing.
The non-profit cited the 2012 redevelopment agreement the borough of Fort Lee and the Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates signed, which “requires FLRA to provide affordable housing subject to a state mandate,” according to the lawsuit.
Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for Fair Share Housing Center, said the state standard is 20 percent.
The lawsuit could have significant ramifications for developments throughout New Jersey located in transit-oriented communities with immediate access to “employment centers,” like New York City and Jersey City — areas from which the middle class has been increasingly priced out.
“People should be able to live in communities with lots of opportunity,” Campisi said.
Although the first building of the project is completed and leasing units, the Modern is not listed as an affordable development by the state’s Department of Community Affairs. The second phase of the project began construction in the spring of 2016.
View from the 40th floor of The Modern, one half of a major redevelopment project in Fort Lee. Fair Share Housing Center is suing the developers for failing to set aside affordable housing. (MICHAEL KARAS) Joseph Atmonavage | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The Fair Share Housing Center is seeking an injunction prohibiting the borough from issuing a certificate of completion or certificate of occupancy for the second building until a plan for the provision of affordable housing units is made available for the property, according to the lawsuit.
“Working families should be able to live in Fort Lee where they have lived for generations,” Campisi said.
Fair Share Housing Center filed the lawsuit Sept. 13. The borough of Fort Lee is also named as a defendant.
Phase one of The Modern, which was completed in 2014, is advertised as a “47-story iconic glass tower” that combines “unprecedented resort-style amenities and services” with “breathtaking views” and units that “deliver a truly unique lifestyle experience.”
Rents range from just under $2,000 for studios and up to $7,300 for three-bedroom penthouses on the top floor, well above the average price for rentals in New Jersey.
Campisi said he could not provide an exact price tag that they would deem “affordable” for this specific development — multiple factors are often taken into account in determining that number.
Stephen M. Eisdorfer, an attorney representing Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
According to Campisi, it is standard practice to include a municipality in a lawsuit against a developer since they are the ones who would issue a certificate of completion or occupancy to the developers. The borough and Fair Share agree the Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates are obligated to set aside affordable housing units, the two differ on how many units.
Lee Cohen, Fort Lee’s attorney, said the borough’s position is that Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates have an affordable housing obligation, but “the court should set it at 10 percent, the same as the rest of the town,” as defined by a borough ordinance that passed in 2010.
Cohen said that number creates a balance, allowing the borough to have affordable housing, while still enticing developers to build in Fort Lee. He said a higher number can deter developers.
But Campisi said the standard in the state is 20 percent — set by the Mount Laurel Doctrine dating back to 1975 that requires New Jersey municipalities to plan, zone for, and take affirmative actions to provide realistic opportunities for their “fair share” of the region’s need for affordable housing.
Campisi said the 20 percent number is crucial in this case because Fort Lee has asked for a vacant land adjustment — arguing that they don’t have enough land to meet their housing obligation.
“That makes the 20 percent set-aside even more important because the town itself is arguing that it doesn’t have a lot of space to work with,” Campisi said.
The lawsuits also states the borough “has violated the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, by depriving the benefited households of their constitutional and statutory right to provision of decent and affordable housing.”
The Modern is one of a number of large-scale development projects underway or recently completed in Fort Lee. On the same 16-acre lot, which was vacant for decades, is the 1 million-square-foot Hudson Lights complex, which includes 143,000-square-feet of retail and 276 luxury apartments and was developed by Tucker Development.
Fair Share Housing Center is in the midst of litigating 350 cases throughout the state to determine what the affordable housing obligations for individual suburban communities actually are. They have settled with over 100 municipalities thus far, Campisi said.