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Future of Fair Housing in New Jersey at Stake; Supreme Court to Hear Argument November 14

Posted by Adam Gordon on October 17th 2012

The New Jersey Supreme Court has scheduled oral argument in In re N.J.A.C. 5:96 and 5:97, the most important fair housing case in New Jersey in three decades, for Wednesday, November 14 at 10 a.m. at the Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton. With 60,000 families, seniors, and people with special needs living in homes that resulted from Mount Laurel and another 40,000 homes in the pipeline, the stakes could not be higher.

The case raises the basic question of whether municipalities may choose to keep out homes that lower-income families, seniors, and people with special needs can afford simply because they do not want them there. A broad and unusual array of groups - ranging from Fair Share Housing Center to the NAACP and Latino Action Network to special needs organizations to New Jersey’s Catholic Charities to the Housing and Community Development Network, New Jersey Future, and the American Planning Association to the New Jersey Builders Association and other business groups - have asked the Supreme Court to affirm existing law and require that every municipality allow for its fair share of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income people. The brief we filed on this issue is available here.

The groups on the other side of the case - Governor Christie and wealthy municipalities - ask the Supreme Court to overturn four decades of fair housing law. Governor Christie, speaking last week in Mount Laurel, the town that gave rise to New Jersey’s landmark fair housing litigation, made his objectives clear in calling Mount Laurel a “stupid case.” His request to the Court is to allow him to “freely look[] at and adopt[] alternative methods for meeting the Mount Laurel doctrine” without having to comply with past court decisions. Governor Christie has already made it clear what that “alternative method” would be: allowing municipalities to adopt any form of exclusionary zoning they wish, and allowing any remaining fair housing obligation to be “met” by paying a $10,000 fee instead of actually building a home. He, and wealthy municipalities allied with him, ask the Court to put their stamp of approval on supposedly “meeting” the state’s fair housing laws by overturning them - essentially seeking a route around the Legislature and prior court decisions, both of which have maintained that municipalities cannot use their zoning as a tool of exclusion.

A recent Princeton University study found that families moving into Mount Laurel homes experienced better success at jobs and significantly better educational outcomes for their kids. Either tens of thousands of New Jerseyans will also have those opportunities in the future - or they will be told by the Supreme Court, as the Mayor of Mount Laurel told the African-American community that brought the original suit - “If you people can’t afford to live in our town, you’ll just have to leave.”

Never mind that the reason why housing is unaffordable in New Jersey, according to a slew of academic studies [ Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, Red Tape and Housing Costs, Rowan University ] is because many wealthier towns block the development of modestly-priced homes by using their zoning code to control who can move into town. That is hardly a legitimate role for government, but that is what Gov. Christie and his allies from some of the state’s wealthiest municipalities claim is the right thing to do.

On November 14, we are going to urge the Supreme Court to reject the policy advocated by the governor and the wealthier municipalities and to uphold Mount Laurel and its promise of fairness in housing today and for future generations.

We’ll continue to provide updates as oral argument gets closer.