Advocates, township officials spar over Cherry Hill affordable housing development

Point of dispute is the tax rate for the planned 54-unit Evans-Francis Estates at Short Hills

Advocates have accused Cherry Hill officials of trying to block a 54-unit, low-income housing development slated to be built at Short Hills Farm.

Township representatives, meanwhile, say they support the long-planned development, known as the Evans-Francis Estates, and that the hold-up is due to the project’s developer.

A debate on the issue broke out at the July 23 township council meeting and quickly got heated.

The sticking point appears to be the Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement for the project.

Attorney Kevin Walsh, of the Fair Share Housing Center, said the developer, Fair Share Housing Development, an associate of Walsh’s center, needs a 5 percent PILOT rate to earn funding for the project through a competitive state funding process. However, he said the township recently approved a 6.28 percent PILOT rate.

The PILOT agreement allows developers like Fair Share Housing Development to forgo paying property taxes and instead pay the township a percentage of the housing complex’s gross annual revenue.

Erin Gill, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the township reached a settlement with Fair Share Housing for the project that did not mandate a 5 percent PILOT. The agreement calls for a PILOT in the 6 percent range, she said.

“The agreement is specific in what it delineates,” Gill said in an interview. “The provision there is specific.”

She added that one provision of the settlement cannot be changed without looking at the agreement in its entirety.

During the meeting, Walsh questioned why the township was reluctant to approve a 5 percent PILOT for the Evans-Francis Estates when it gave the same rate to another affordable housing complex — the Commons at Springdale, which is being developed for seniors and people with disabilities.

“It appears that it is intentional discrimination based on race because there has been no justification given,” Walsh said. “It appears that it is intentional discrimination based on familial status, and it appears to be intentional discrimination against the veterans that would live there.”

The Evans-Francis Estates, if built, would include 10 units set aside with a preference for veterans, Walsh said.

The Short Hills Farms site has been designated for affordable housing for decades, and Mayor Chuck Cahn said the township would like to see the project completed.

“This township has provided millions — literally, millions of dollars — to Evans-Francis to try to help them build this housing at Short Hills, and they have yet to be able to do it,” he said during the meeting.

“It is not my responsibility, nor the council’s,” Cahn added. “It falls upon the developers to be able to have the ability to develop it.”

Walsh, in an interview, said Fair Share Housing Development cannot get funding through the New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency without the 5 percent PILOT.

Several other advocates also spoke at the meeting in support of the Evans-Francis project.

“We are kind of dumbfounded why Cherry Hill would not be supporting and moving forward with the area Mr. Walsh explained,” said Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County East chapter of the NAACP.

“I don’t think anyone up there would want to be on the wrong side of history again as the people were in the Mt. Laurel situation,” he added, referring to landmark affordable housing case.

“This should be a settled issue,” said the Rev. Robert Gregorio, of Glassboro, a member of the Camden Diocese’s Racial Justice Commission. “Every human being in this country is entitled to fair housing.”

Cahn and several members of council responded by saying the township supports affordable housing and strongly opposes racism and discrimination.

“We are advocates the same way you are,” Cahn said. “We want the same things you want.”

“This is a legal matter, not a matter of housing,” he added. “This is a matter of terms and conditions of a legal document.”

The nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center routinely files lawsuits against municipalities in the state to increase affordable housing opportunities. However, Walsh said the center would like to resolve the Evans-Francis issue away from the courtroom.

“We want the town to comply with the housing laws,” he said. “Our hope would be that it wouldn’t take litigation.”