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Future of Fair Housing at Stake: The Persistence of Exclusionary Zoning in Our State

Posted by Laura Denker on November 2nd 2012

Hurricane Sandy has left a devastating and long-lasting impact on our state. We extend our sympathies to those who have suffered from this storm and best wishes during the challenging rebuild.

As we attempt to return to our every-day routine, on Wednesday, November 14, the New Jersey Supreme Court will still consider the request by Governor Christie and wealthy municipalities to allow towns to exclude low- and moderate-income families, seniors, and people with special needs, reversing four decades of court rulings.

In the past two weeks, we shared information on the general background of the case and on the impact that the Mount Laurel cases have had in New Jersey. This week, we share information on the persistence of exclusionary zoning in our state. The original Mount Laurel decisions resulted both from the personal stories of lower-income people seeking homes and from groundbreaking analysis of how municipal governments made it impossible to build those homes. In 1970, in Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, and Somerset Counties, apartments and townhouses - the lowest cost forms of housing - were banned on 99.2 percent of land available for residential development.

This exclusionary zoning remains widespread in New Jersey today - if anything it has gotten worse. A 2011 Rowan University analysis of exclusionary zoning in New Jersey shows that, in the fastest growing areas of the state, municipalities have largely outlawed even middle-class housing in their zoning - while continuing to allow dense development of offices and shops.

The analysis found that in Somerset County, 87 percent of residentially zoned land only allows mansions on one acre or more of land. In the same county, only 1 percent of residentially zoned land allows apartments and townhouses. Monmouth County allows only 3 percent for apartments and townhouses and 84 percent for large-lot development. Even the few areas zoned for apartments and townhouses are generally only there because of Mount Laurel.

While municipalities in Monmouth and Somerset Counties have made it nearly impossible to build apartments and townhouses, they find plenty of space for strip malls and office parks. Somerset County has zoning for 16 times as many jobs as homes, and Monmouth 7 times as many. There is plenty of space for what municipalities see as the “right” kind of development - it’s only when people want to build starter homes that all the sudden there is not enough available land.

If this continues, it’s not hard to see where that path leads. As the Supreme Court itself said in deciding Mount Laurel in 1975: This pattern of land use regulation has been adopted for the same purpose in developing municipality after developing municipality. Almost every one acts solely in its own selfish and parochial interest and in effect builds a wall around itself to keep out those people or entities not adding favorably to the tax base, despite the location of the municipality or the demand for varied kinds of housing.

That’s what happened before 1975. And there is no reason to think that it won’t happen again if the Supreme Court reverses its prior precedent. And a New Jersey full of mansions is not one that works for working families, seniors, people with special needs, or one that keeps our economy competitive.

That’s why, on November 14, we and our allies will be asking the Supreme Court to make sure that land use regulations include the poor as well as the rich, African-Americans and Latinos as well as non-Hispanic whites, and people with special needs as well as people who can afford mansions. When everyone has a place in our communities, we all win.