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About 200 people gathered at Princeton University today to reflect on the 40 years since the Southern Burlington County and Camden County NAACP branches sued Mount Laurel Township over its exclusion of low- and moderate-income families, particularly families of color. The event focused on a new study, by Doug Massey, the author of American Apartheid and one of the most prominent scholars of race and class issues in America, of 140 townhouses in Mount Laurel that resulted from that historic lawsuit that are now occupied by families earning between $7,000 and $60,000 a year. Massey spent the past four years conducting the most comprehensive study ever undertaken anywhere in the country of the impact of new homes that working families can afford in a fast-growing, high-opportunity community like Mount Laurel. What he found is nothing short of astonishing: the 140 families who had an opportunity to rent these modest homes were able to get better jobs, rely less on welfare, get their kids a better education, and improve their physical and mental health – all while the surrounding community saw none of the doomsday impacts that naysayers had predicted.
Massey introduced his research by quoting Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said “we’re all entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts.” He cited the purposes of the “Monitoring Mount Laurel Study” as taking a set of issues that had long been the subject of mainly political debate and empirically analyze it so that there was a basis of facts on what actually happened on the ground. In theory, residential location is closely connected to educational and economic opportunity, and so if zoning keeps people away from those opportunities artificially, it potentially has a significant impact on those opportunities. Massey cited the work of William Julius Wilson, the Harvard scholar whose book When Work Disappears had significant impacts on both conservative and liberal thinking about cities and neighborhoods, as emphasizing the connections between location and access to opportunity and putting these ideas on the map. However, many of the details of this theory have historically been, in Massey’s words, “out there in the ether” without enough rigorous study of actual impacts. This study allowed for an unbiased, data-driven look at what happened – which would either vindicate or disprove the concept that by overcoming zoning barriers, families would have better access to jobs and education.
Massey said he focused on Mount Laurel because, by quirks of how it worked, it offered an unusually good opportunity to research data in detail – what social scientists call a “natural experiment.” Because over 2400 people applied for the 140 townhouses in Mount Laurel, and they were largely randomly selected, Massey could compare people who had the opportunity to live in the development with those who wanted to but weren’t allowed to do so. Also, Massey was able to look at Mount Laurel as compared against its neighbor Evesham, which is highly similar to Mount Laurel – except that no development comparable to Ethel Lawrence Homes was built there (during the time studied at least – since then, 100 townhomes opened there which over 2000 people applied for).
The results found no impact on crime, property taxes, or home values resulting from the development opening. Most people in the surrounding area didn’t even know that the development was for working families as it looks pretty much identical to surrounding developments.
The impacts on the families living in the townhomes, however, were strong. They experience a 170% increase in likelihood of employment, with an increase of over 20% of their total income coming from work (as opposed to relying on public benefits like welfare). They also experienced lower stress and better mental health, in large part because of lower exposure to drugs, gangs, and crime, which in itself probably helped with mental health and employment.
The survey also looked at the impact on children, particularly their schools. The impact on overall GPA for the children was 0.19, a modest increase. This is surprising given that in many cases kids moved into the more challenging Mount Laurel schools from lower performing districts. The impacts came from three main sources: parents got more involved in schools, kids spent more time studying, and the school environment was more orderly.
My colleague Peter O’Connor talked about how this all happened on the ground – through a mix of building alliances of community groups supporting housing choices, litigation, and financing to build homes. He also shared additional information about the children who moved into the development – they are actually more proficient at math and reading than the state as a whole, and perform higher on math proficiency than Mount Laurel Township as a whole, despite being poorer than most students in the Township or the state. He also emphasized the importance of the close partnership with the Mount Laurel school system to help them better deal with race and class diversity – something they have done an excellent job of addressing.
For the afternoon, the lineup has on tap reactions from various people with different vantage points on housing policy in New Jersey: Timothy Touhey, the head of the New Jersey Builders Association, Diane Sterner who runs the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, Tony Marchetta who runs the state’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and Ed Schmierer, a prominent municipal attorney. Then Michael Stegman, a top housing policy official in the Obama Administration, is giving the closing speech.
The lesson from today: New Jersey’s state housing policy, which Gov. Chris Christie has done his best to dismantle in his two years in office, has worked for tens of thousands of families. We need to continue on the same path while instituting reforms to make it work better – not gut it as the Governor has proposed.