Defending Mount Laurel
Fair Share Housing Center, at its core, fights for the values underlying the Mount Laurel Doctrine. We believe that families of every income level and every background, especially low-income people of color, should have the choice to live in any community and any school district, and should not be excluded by discriminatory zoning policies. We believe that if a low-income person of color wants to live in a community with exemplary schools, or good access to jobs, or close to transit hubs, they should have the same opportunity to do so as people earning six figures. Most research shows that low-income families have a better chance of rising out of poverty when they move to safe communities with good schools and jobs. But we also know that this may not be the choice of location for every low-income person. Ultimately, we believe that the choice of where to live and where to raise children should be just that — a choice made by each person, regardless of their income level or race. Our decades-long fight for social justice in NJ housing has enabled 60,000 low-income and moderate-income New Jersey families to have such a choice and we hope to remove barriers to tens of thousands more families having the same opportunity in the next decade.
Of course, not everyone shares our values. Over the years, many towns have tried to avoid their constitutional duty to provide their “fair share” of the region’s need for affordable housing. Chief Justice Robert Wilentz of the New Jersey Supreme Court, in writing the Mount Laurel II decision, observed that too many attempts to get out of building affordable housing have been “papered over with studies, rationalized by hired experts,” but they remain “at (their) core … true to nothing but (a) determination to exclude the poor.”
Today, although the Mount Laurel Doctrine remains the nation’s strongest statewide affordable housing policy, there is a strong and concerted effort to push back the obligations required. Indeed, an entire industry of law firms and experts exists to devise complex regulations allowing municipalities to claim to “meet” their Mount Laurel obligation without actually doing anything. This is the key reason why New Jersey has not been able to meet even the most modest projections of need in the state. For example, from 1987 to 1999, the state estimated that 85,964 new low-income and moderate-income homes were needed statewide, but only about 41,000 were built. Most of the remainder were lost to various bureaucratic manipulations granting municipalities credit as if they had built an affordable home when in reality no home was built.
Fair Share Housing Center’s main role is to keep tabs on what some people call “the COAH game” and ensure that the push-back is not successful. In its media campaigns, partnerships with grass roots community groups, litigation, and advocacy work, FSHC tries to focus public attention on the reason why the Mount Laurel lawsuit was brought in the first place, its moral grounding and its potential benefit to the general welfare of each of the state’s six Mount Laurel regions.
Fair Share Housing Center’s work over the past several years has led to the wholesale rewriting of the state’s entire affordable housing system. Our most critical work over the next three years will be to ensure that the new statewide affordable housing regulations and laws that we fought so hard for over the past several years do not turn into a repeat of the last round of laws, with so many loopholes being carved out that less than half of the housing needed actually gets built. We now have, on the books, a requirement for 115,000 new affordable homes over the next decade, and new restrictions on some of the loopholes that have led to fewer homes getting built, such as the elimination of Regional Contribution Agreements. We also have about 300 municipalities statewide that have met the December 31, 2008 deadline to submit plans to meet those requirements, the highest rate of voluntary compliance with Mount Laurel ever.
But a recent FSHC analysis found that major loopholes in the COAH regulations still exist — and some new ones have been recently created — that will lead to, at most, only 45,000 homes getting built over the next decade out of the 115,000 required, even if the economy rebounds. If the economy does not rebound, the numbers are likely to be substantially lower, and the need higher.
Over the next three years we plan to push for the implementation of what is good in the law, battle attempts to weaken or waive those provisions, and challenge through litigation and regulatory processes several of the existing loopholes, especially the ones just added by COAH in the past year. Examples of issues we are currently challenging include a “bonus” process that gives 2-for-1 credit for 25 percent of each municipality’s fair share obligation (loss of 28,750 homes); the allocation of affordable housing obligations to environmentally sensitive lands where the state knows they will never get built (loss of 12,600 homes); and the failure to accurately measure the potential for housing construction through redevelopment and transit-oriented development already taking place throughout the state (loss of 11,700 homes).
The next few years are critical, because they will determine the degree to which the new affordable housing system is actually implemented. We expect to hold the line on the opportunities available to tens of thousands of low-income families, successfully challenge and remove the negative loopholes and expand the viability of the Mount Laurel Doctrine going forward.