Civil rights leaders call for wealthy municipalities to stop pretending working poor don't exist
CHERRY HILL - Civil rights leaders are fighting back against a new report commissioned by more than 200 towns across New Jersey that undercounts the pressing housing needs of low-income families, people with disabilities, and people of color. These towns are pursuing policies of exclusion while simultaneously attempting to hide a second publicly funded study that apparently shows far greater housing needs.
Towns, in the report they chose to release, relied on demonstrably false assumptions and legal trickery to make tens of thousands of working families, seniors and those with disabilities disappear. Their approach would disproportionately impact African-Americans and Latinos living in one of the nation's most segregated states.
"We have to name exclusion for what it is," said Mike McNeil, Housing Chairman of the New Jersey NAACP. "These mayors believe in Jim Crow. They're like Governor Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door against integration. These mayors are overwhelmingly standing on their borders saying people of color aren't welcome in their neighborhoods. We have been fighting this mindset since the 1960s. As long as there is racism and as long as there are people who want to keep us out, we'll keep on fighting. One day we will win this fight."
McNeil was joined by Latino Action Network President Frank Argote-Freyre, who called on the state's judges to protect the constitutional rights of New Jerseyans by holding towns accountable to New Jersey's fair housing laws.
"This report is an attack on the civil rights of tens of thousands of Latino and African-American families," Argote-Freyre said. "If mayors across New Jersey refuse to do the right thing, we are going to have to force them to through the courts. New Jersey can be better than this and is better than this - but it is going to take continued work to overcome their discrimination."
This housing study is the latest in a long series of attempts by municipal officials to disregard the orders of the New Jersey Supreme Court and to evade the Mount Laurel Doctrine, the principle embedded in the state Constitution requiring that municipalities do their fair share to provide affordable housing opportunities to New Jersey families.
Municipal officials are also trying to hide an earlier housing study conducted by Rutgers University. Although Rutgers distributed a report to more than 200 municipalities, these towns are now going to court to fight against that report becoming public - likely because the report shows that the actual need for homes is greater than municipalities want to admit.
After stopping work with Rutgers, municipalities hired Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions Inc. to come up with an alternative report, which is now being released as part of ongoing litigation involving municipal housing responsibilities.
The report differs strongly with a study by noted planner Dr. David N. Kinsey released in July, which found that New Jersey families need more than 200,000 additional affordable homes to combat the growing pressures of high property values, an ongoing mortgage foreclosure crisis and the effects of Superstorm Sandy and a wave of casino closings that have left thousands jobless. This would meet the state's housing need from 1999 through 2025.
By contrast, this report, commissioned by a consortium of 200 towns that have banded together to fight inclusion, found that New Jersey families needed only 36,494 units of housing over the same 25-year period. Towns are hoping to use this report to water down their obligations in a series of fair housing lawsuits taking place throughout the state that provide a once in a generation opportunity for New Jersey families waiting for quality affordable homes.
"This report is the newest statement from wealthy towns that they want to exclude people who aren't wealthy. They want to keep school kids out, too," Fair Share Housing Center Executive Director Kevin Walsh said. "This is why homes in New Jersey cost so much. If you don't drive a BMW or Mercedes, you're not welcome in much of New Jersey. If your house doesn't have granite countertops, you're not welcome. We have laws to stop this sort of discrimination, and we are hoping judges will identify what the towns have submitted for what it is."
The report relies on a series of gimmicks to effectively pretend that tens of thousands of working families, seniors and those with disabilities don't exist as a way of artificially reducing housing need.
First, it argues that New Jersey municipalities shouldn't have to meet the state's housing need from 1999 through 2015 - a time when political gridlock in Trenton kept the state's housing laws from functioning properly. This flies in the face of the law and contradicts arguments that the New Jersey League of Municipalities made in an earlier court case, when attorneys for the League confirmed that municipal need for that period of time could not be made to disappear.
"This proposal is so absurd, even the state League of Municipalities rejected that approach in court years ago," Walsh said. "The report flies in the face of common sense. Anyone who has ever been to New Jersey knows that families need help now. That need didn't disappear just because of political gridlock in Trenton. Towns are talking out of both sides of their mouth, proving that some municipal officials will go to any lengths to continue excluding New Jersey families."
Econsult's latest report directly contradicts an earlier housing study the firm performed for the state Council on Affordable Housing in 2008, which found a statewide need of 116,000 homes, and found that the housing need that accumulated up to that point did not disappear.
The report also proposes a statewide need that is significantly less than what was established in previous fair housing rounds. The Council on Affordable Housing, for instance, determined that the state's need from 1987 through 1999 was approximately 85,000 homes. It beggars belief that municipalities are now arguing that New Jersey has a need less than half of that over a 25-year period.
In addition to this report, the state League of Municipalities is proposing a dramatic rewrite of New Jersey's housing policies to exclude the very poorest New Jerseyans - those making under 20 percent of the regional area median income - from housing.
This approach would also violate state law and was first proposed by Econsult in an earlier report for the League. It was rejected by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey because it would disproportionately disenfranchise people with physical and mental disabilities - many of whom rely on government help and report very little income.
"Towns are engaged in a more sophisticated form of discrimination - in which they got experts to say black and Latino families and people with disabilities don't exist," Walsh said. "Municipal leaders want to ignore these people because they think they're just not worth caring about."
Click here to read a copy of the Appellate Division case in which the League of Municipalities argued that housing need could not disappear.