A New Jersey court on Friday ordered the state Council on Affordable Housing to meet and approve rules dictating how much housing each town must allocate for lower-income people.

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The court says that if the state government does not follow the order, it "may have no other choice but to declare that event to be COAH's third and final strike." The court said that if the board does not comply, individual members would be ordered to appear in court.

Friday's ruling is the latest in four decades of litigation over how New Jersey houses lower-income people. Local officials generally do not like the mandates the court's landmark rulings have put on towns, forcing them to choose between drafting plans for how to provide home for low-income people or risk lawsuits from developers. And conservatives especially oppose the rulings as judicial activism.

Gov. Chris Christie previously attempted to abolish the Council, which is responsible for enforcing affordable housing policy. But judges nixed that.

Now, a three-judge appeals panel says that the council must meet March 26 and again in May 14 and adopt rules within six months to replace the version that expired in 1999.

The ruling stops short -- barely -- of what Fair Share Housing Center asked for, a special court master to be appointed to oversee the agency.

"We remain reluctant, at this time, to take the extraordinary action of declaring that this government agency is utterly incapable or unwilling to carry out its core statutory mission," the court ruled. "We remain hopeful, however, that reasonable minds will prevail, and that the members of the COAH Board will see that this course of intransigence serves only to needlessly undermine the public's confidence in the effectiveness of public institutions."

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office did not have an immediate response to questions about whether the state would comply with the order.


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