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Thanks to the courts, NJ is finally building affordable homes. Let’s keep it that way

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

By Richard Smith and Dr. Jesselly De La Cruz

"We Already Know How to Address Affordable Housing – Revisiting New Jersey’s Dysfunctional Past Does Nothing to Advance the Issue".

The Assembly Housing Committee held a hearing on the upcoming fourth round of Mount Laurel affordable housing obligations. The stated intent of the meeting was to solicit feedback on the current court-involved process as compared to the earlier administrative process under the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).

The irony of the Committee’s hearing description is that it makes it sound like there is something to actually compare.

In 2015, after fifteen years of non-enforcement, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared COAH moribund and sent the process to the courts. Since then, Fair Share Housing Center has settled more than 340 cases with towns throughout the state. They anticipate approximately 50,000 homes to be built over the next decade as a result of this rounds settlement agreements.

Between 2000 and 2015, COAH did nothing to move affordable housing forward. No towns had plans reviewed or approved and affordable housing development was stalled. Between 1993 and 1999, when COAH was arguably “operating,” only 138 towns had their plans fully reviewed and approved.

There is no question that the current process has yielded more success in developing affordable housing than the administrative process under COAH. In fact, we are still digging out from the significant shortage of affordable homes that resulted from COAH’s failure to enforce Mount Laurel—according to state data, New Jersey only added about 95,000 homes in the last decade despite growing by 210,000 families. The only reason towns and municipalities want to revisit the old process is because it allowed them to use political horse trading and bureaucracy to put off and stall their constitutional obligations to build affordable housing.

At its core, the Mount Laurel Doctrine is about racial and economic justice. The landmark civil rights case prevents the state and municipalities from using land use policies to discriminate based on income, and requires all towns in New Jersey to provide their fair share of the region’s affordable housing.

Mount Laurel is taught in law schools and planning schools around the country and is most commonly compared to Brown v. Board of Education, the historic civil rights case that ended legal school segregation, because of the precedent it set in combatting residential segregation.

Despite our diversity as a state, New Jersey is highly segregated. This hyper-segregation has led to significant racial disparities—some of the worst in the nation. But research has demonstrated the benefits of affordable housing in addressing racial inequities. Living in areas of higher opportunity, with better schools, improved infrastructure, and access to jobs and other resources, leads to improved health and wealth outcomes for low-income families and people of color. If New Jersey is serious about addressing our racial inequities, we must be forthcoming about the systems that uphold these injustices. Failing to enforce Mount Laurel is one of them.

New Jersey’s population is growing in size and diversity and we are already facing a housing crisis. Returning to or even considering a defunct system that may stall affordable housing development again is irresponsible.

We already know what works to accelerate affordable housing development, and Mount Laurel enforcement plays a critical role. Because of the current court process, for the first time ever, exclusively white towns in New Jersey are constructing affordable homes. New Jersey is building more affordable housing now than ever before.

Entertaining the return to a failed process under the guise of “improving the system,” only seeks to protect those who want to retain the status quo and keep low-income families and people of color out of their communities.

We must fight against this. A segregated New Jersey harms everyone.

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Richard Smith is the President of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and a Member of the NAACP National Board of Directors.

Dr. Jesselly De La Cruz is the Executive Director of the Latino Action Network Foundation.

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