New Jersey is a deep blue state. If you walk down the street here carrying a gun, you’ll likely get arrested. We support public education and net neutrality. We have no interest is seeing oil drillers offshore our beaches. We like Planned Parenthood and hate ICE. We celebrate our diversity. And yet New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the country.
Mt. Laurel is a 40,000+ population suburb of Philadelphia. Per the 2010 census it is 80% white and median household income is about $85,000. In the 1960’s, Mt. Laurel was in the midst of a transition from a rural community to a suburb populated mostly by new single-family homes. Some of the town’s poorer, and mostly African-American residents, were displaced to make way for the new developments. When the township turned down a request to build three dozen affordable apartments for displaced residents, they soon ended up in court. The case went all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and specifically prohibited exclusionary zoning. It was a precedent setting decision and the first of its kind in the nation.
Morris Township is a 22,000 population town in Northern New Jersey. It is 85% white and has a median household income of $132k. Last month, more than 40 years after the Mt. Laurel ruling, the township committee squeaked through a resolution by a vote of 3-2 that would finally result in the municipality meeting a court approved deadline to provide a plan for affordable housing. They did so at a tumultuous meeting amidst the protests of residents who complained about additional traffic and lower housing values.
Ultimately segregation is a product of racism and xenophobia. But it has been enabled by housing policy and its implementation.
Housing segregation in the northeast and in other more densely populated and industrialized areas of the country really took off during the period following World War II. The combination of economic prosperity, low-cost mortgages available to veterans and a baby boom produced a flurry of construction of single-family homes. And federal housing policy quite specifically and intentionally made sure that the housing boom resulted in planting white people in the suburbs. Developers could only get Federal Housing Administration guaranteed mortgages if they agreed to neither sell nor rent to African-Americans. The FHA policy was not to provide loans to developers in minority neighborhoods. At the same time mortgage lenders adopted the practice of “redlining” keeping blacks from buying in white neighborhoods. Meanwhile the low-income housing projects that received federal funding were primarily built in majority non-white neighborhoods.
By the time of the 1975 Mt. Laurel ruling these specifically racist federal policies had generally been corrected even if more subtle variations continued in place. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited these practices and called for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion or national origin. But while the courts, the federal and most state legislatures have continued to support equal housing opportunity, none of this has really resulted in diversity of housing types in most communities nor has it eliminated segregation in states like New Jersey. The commitment has not been universally shared by lenders, builders and realtors. Nor have local officials and the people whose job it is to enforce these policies done so in good faith.
Following the initial court ruling, Mt. Laurel did set up some zoning for affordable housing. Some of the land was in an industrial park and some was wetland. So the town again ended up in court and again it lost. A second Mt. Laurel court decision in 1983 clearly established what became known as the Mt. Laurel Doctrine, that each municipality must provide for its fair share of affordable housing.
The second Mt. Laurel ruling was followed by New Jersey’s own Fair Housing Act in 1985. That legislation created a state agency, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) which was charged with overseeing municipal efforts to zone for a diversity of housing and to establish quotas for each town. It never did. The council was suspended in 2010 by New Jersey’s then GOP Governor Chris Christie. The ball was effectively passed back to the courts. While the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Christie did not have the authority to disband the agency, by 2015 it ruled instead that municipalities could petition the lower courts to have their fair housing plans approved. Some have, some haven’t.
The most recent court initiative came in a case involving two more affluent New Jersey communities, Princeton and West Windsor. In March of this year a Mercer County Superior Court judge set a specific number of affordable housing units for each of these towns, a number that was higher than what either of the townships had argued for. The judge’s ruling established guidelines for the 100+ towns that still haven’t produced an approved Mt. Laurel plan.
What all of this shows is that neither court rulings nor legislation builds housing. Most towns only came up with a plan when required to do so. And many of those that did still have little to show except a plan. There is little chance that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 will be enforced in any way by the likes of Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions or Ben Carson. So as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first Mt. Laurel ruling, I can’t see that the doctrine established by the court has come anywhere near achieving what it was intended to do.