(The Op-Ed below was written by Frank Argote-Freyre, President Emeritus and Housing Committee Chair of the Latino Action Network.)
In New Jersey, too many families and individuals are fighting uphill battles to meet basic needs, including the need for quality affordable housing. Due to the Mount Laurel Doctrine, towns throughout the state are legally required to provide affordable housing units for low- and moderate-income residents. As a result of this doctrine, thousands of working poor families have found housing across New Jersey.
The success of the Mount Laurel Doctrine bothers some folks in the suburbs and wealthier communities who now must share their piece of paradise with — gasp — poor people of all complexions.
A recent opinion piece, “New Jersey must do better on housing policy to aid low-income families,” smeared the Mount Laurel Doctrine as a lucrative tool for developers that does not fulfill the intent of municipalities to provide affordable housing opportunities.
What does the author, a philosophy professor from Fordham University, suggest? He proposes incentives to rehabilitate housing in areas in “need of renewal.” Why? So, more people are not “crammed” into his suburban town of Caldwell. His solution was tried for two decades in the late 1990s and early 2000s and led to ongoing segregation. There is nothing wrong with renewing impoverished areas, but maybe, working poor families might also want to live in the suburbs?
For years, low-income people were excluded from participating in economic growth in our state. New Jersey towns saw populations grow, new housing developments built, and new businesses established. All this occurred as municipal land regulations excluded affordable housing opportunities, keeping those unable to pay for a home out of the community.
Imagine being unable to access decent housing, a safe neighborhood, or a good school simply because your family does not make enough money. The discriminatory zoning practices that existed throughout the state prior to the Mount Laurel Doctrine displaced poor residents who ended up being systematically left behind.
In January 2017, after multiple cases over many years, the New Jersey Supreme Court finally deemed exclusionary land-use unconstitutional and required every municipality across the state to provide realistic affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents.
But years of exclusionary practices will take a long time to rectify.
There are now over 300 municipalities, across New Jersey, working to address the lack of affordable housing. Local officials in these towns know their obligations regarding the number of affordable units they must create. They are working to redevelop or build affordable housing through public planning processes. Towns are utilizing a mix of strategies to increase housing availability, finding creative ways to meet affordable housing obligations with projects well suited to the community.
This planning is important, for the demand for housing in New Jersey is great. Approvals for new housing are not thrust upon local communities from on high but are the result of local decisions about what is best for each community. The Mount Laurel Doctrine serves as the mechanism that ensures communities and properties do not price out low- and moderate-income residents. How each community meets their obligation is theirs to determine, so long as their obligation is met.
New Jersey is a desirable place to live. Over the past century, we have experienced consistent population growth that continues to this day. To fully realize our potential as an inclusive state where economic growth is achieved, we need to ensure that all New Jerseyans have the chance to live wherever they want, and that means having access to the sublime pleasures of suburbia.
We have a long way to go to ensure access to affordable housing for all, but with each individual and family who moves to a new town, the vision for a fair and equitable New Jersey comes closer to reality.