N.J. Supreme Court must reject systemic racism in affordable housing debate | Opinion
By Richard T. Smith and Christian
After 16 long years of Trenton gridlock, New Jersey municipalities are finally making meaningful progress addressing our state's pressing housing affordability crisis.
Thanks to a New Jersey Supreme Court decision handed down last year that turned over enforcement of our state's fair-housing laws to the judiciary, hundreds of municipalities are in the process of developing plans to provide tens of thousands of homes to meet the needs of working families, seniors and those with disabilities.
More than 70 towns have already reached agreements on their affordable housing obligations, which add up to more than 20,000 units. These settlements clear the way to quickly begin development on projects that provide decent, stable homes for New Jersey families in safe neighborhoods with access to jobs and good schools.
All of these recent advancements illustrate that a consensus is forming in New Jersey that municipalities can and should tackle their responsibility to provide fair-housing opportunities for families under the state constitution's Mount Laurel doctrine.
At heart, New Jersey's fair-housing laws aren't just about building homes. They're also about expanding ladders of opportunity to the middle class for the many thousands of families who are priced out of our state's many thriving communities.
While our state boasts some of the most desirable towns in the nation, longstanding patterns of exclusionary zoning have shut too many New Jersey families out of the American Dream. These unconstitutional obstacles have hit minority communities -- especially African-Americans and Latinos -- the hardest.
Yet the progress we have made is being threatened by a group of recalcitrant municipalities that are seeking to undermine the Mount Laurel doctrine by pursuing a strategy of delay and obstruction. These towns are arguing they should not be held responsible for any of the state's fair-housing needs that accrued during a 16-year gap period beginning in 1999, when bureaucratic gridlock kept New Jersey's fair-housing laws from being enforced.
In essence, these towns are arguing they should be able to ignore the many challenges New Jersey families confronted during this time, ranging from the Great Recession to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the state's ongoing foreclosure crisis.
These legal arguments would artificially paper over up to 60 percent of the state's housing need. This means that tens of thousands of New Jersey families will never have the chance to move into homes they can afford in the state's many thriving communities. And it will cement our state's long history of racial and socioeconomic segregation for another generation.
That's why our organizations have joined together to submit a friend of the court brief laying out the impact of this case on the struggle for racial integration in New Jersey. That brief has been accepted by the court.
Almost as disturbing is the housing study that these towns are relying on to make these dangerous arguments. The study, written by Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions, relies on a deeply flawed understanding that ignores the systemic racism which disadvantages New Jersey's minority communities, especially African-Americans and Latinos.
It argues that houses which have recently sold for up to a half-million dollars should be classified as affordable.
And Econsult principal Peter Angelides testified recently at an Ocean County fair-housing proceeding that there was "no measure" to indicate that New Jersey's minority communities still suffered from housing discrimination -- an astounding, out-of-touch statement directly contradicting statistics showing that our state is one of the most segregated in the nation.
The New Jersey Supreme Court is set to take up the question of whether towns must truly do their fair share to respond to our state's housing crisis on Nov. 30.
The justices must reject these towns' radical ideology and vindicate their own 2015 landmark fair-housing ruling. The process the court established must be allowed to continue so that we can finally bring an end to the decades of litigation surrounding this issue.
It's time to turn to the work of building a state in which black and Latino families are no longer excluded.
Richard T. Smith is president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference