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We are at a critical moment in the struggle for equal opportunity in New Jersey.
Thanks to a 2015 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling designed to break through 16 years of Trenton gridlock, hundreds of towns across the state are currently developing plans designed to provide tens of thousands of new homes to meet the needs of New Jersey’s working families, seniors and those with disabilities.
These towns are in the process of complying with a legal principle embedded in our state Constitution known as the Mount Laurel doctrine. It says that all municipalities must do their part to provide homes to meet the state’s pressing fair housing needs.
But a few towns and the League of Municipalities – backed by the Christie Administration, which has consistently, in the governor’s own words, work to “gut” the state’s fair housing laws — are now returning to the New Jersey Supreme Court to undo that progress, with argument scheduled for Wednesday.
As of this writing, more than 80 towns across the state have agreed to satisfy housing obligations of more than 30,000 homes. These towns range from large suburbs, like Bridgewater, Edison, and Toms River, to small towns, like Delanco, Dover, and Metuchen.
These agreements mean that thousands of working families will be able to buy or rent homes in safe suburban neighborhoods with access to good schools and jobs. It means that thousands of seniors living on fixed incomes will be able to age in their hometowns. And it means that people with disabilities will have expanded access to supportive housing enabling them to live closer to friends and family members.
Research shows that when the Mount Laurel doctrine was being properly enforced in the 1980s and 1990s, housing prices rose more slowly for working and middle class families – which helped families afford to remain in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. Yet since then, New Jersey’s housing prices have skyrocketed as many towns have shirked their responsibilities – even as our economy has underperformed the national average, in part because many companies don’t want to move to a place where their workers can’t afford to live.
Vigorous enforcement of the Mount Laurel doctrine will also advance the goal of racial integration in New Jersey, which currently holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most racially segregated states in the nation. Our fair housing laws provide an important check on exclusionary zoning and land-use practices that discriminate against African American and Latino families.
In the upcoming court case, certain towns, plus the Christie administration, are arguing that they shouldn’t have to meet any of the housing obligations they accrued during a 16-year gap period, beginning in 1999, when the state Council on Affordable Housing wasn’t working properly. This means that towns don’t want to allow homes to be built for thousands of New Jersey families impacted by the fallout of the Great Recession, the wave of foreclosures and the continuing impact of Superstorm Sandy.
They are doing so even though, audaciously, many of the same towns and the League of Municipalities took the opposite position when these delays were occurring – arguing there was no harm in delay because ultimately any delay would be made up for when towns had to finalize their housing plans. Now that that moment has come, the League and others want to perform a bait and switch on New Jersey’s working families, saying that they shouldn’t have to meet the very obligations they promised to meet.
These towns’ legal arguments would artificially paper over up to 60 percent of the state’s fair housing need – meaning that thousands of families would be forever shut out of the opportunity to moving into a thriving community.
And they would also punish the many municipalities who followed the law over the past 16 years by continuing to permit housing for New Jersey’s working families to be built. These towns wouldn’t be permitted to use these thousands of homes to satisfy their fair housing obligations if there is no obligation for that period.
Now is the time for all of us to continue stand up against the forces of exclusion and make very clear to municipal and state officials that these towns’ tactics don’t reflect New Jersey values. We must work together to build an inclusive state where more families have access to the opportunities available in our many thriving suburban communities, and we work towards ending our extreme levels of racial and economic segregation.