Nearly 40 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could not use their zoning powers to exclude certain residents from moving in. The suit was based on a complaint filed by a South Jersey chapter of the NAACP – The National Association for Advancement of Colored People, yes, black people. More correctly, black, inner city people, often known as “them.”
The Seventies in New Jersey, as they were in many urbanized states, were the times when suburbanization took hold. During the Fifties and Sixties, fueled by federal laws that offered the war generation a chance to attend college and buy a home, and enticed by the construction of the first interstate highways, residents left the state’s urban centers – Newark, Camden, Paterson, Trenton, Elizabeth — and settled in the Bridgewaters, Morris Townships, Parsippanys, Bedministers, Readingtons and Somervilles and Morristowns of the region.
The homes were new, with land. The schools were new and the roads were new and nowhere did that urban grunge cling to the front porch. Then the jobs came and the ring of highways was lined with office parks and shopping centers.
The shift, later named suburban sprawl, stripped the cities of people, wealth, jobs and property values, and left the state’s great cities in an economic state from which they have yet to fully recover.
Pause on that thought a moment: Forty years ago the run to the suburbs was driven in part by the deteriorating condition of the old cities. The flight to the suburbs only made it worse, so much so that in 1985, in New Jersey’s other landmark court case, the Abbott school case, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state had to take extra steps to support the damaged school systems in the old, poor urban areas. In that case the court ruled that since school aid was solely based on property taxes, it was the state’s responsibility to correct the inequity.
It speaks volumes about the ineptitude and parochial party blindness of New Jersey’s politicians than in 2013, both the Mount Laurel and Abbott cases, now 40 and 30 years old respectively, persist in some form in the state’s court system.
So in keeping with the tradition, the Republican governor of the state will try again to kill off a state-created spending source for affordable housing, a source that the court system said previously he could not have.
And again the state’s nonprofit community that has done more to quietly devise a reasonable system to build affordable housing and end homelessness, will rally to the cause. And again, the towns, whose affordable housing trust funds are being threatened to fix a hole in the governor’s trap-door state budget, will cry out.
There is little sympathy for the towns here. Yes, the governor should find a more appropriate way to close the holes in his budget, but the town officials who are yelping, are often the ones who opposed every plan to build affordable housing in the past because (pick your favorite excuse) low income housing reduced property values, ruined neighborhoods, added too many children to the local schools, or just simply, brought “them” into town.
Guess what, “They” are already here; always have been. And as for school kids, a Rutgers University report a few years ago looked at the impact of affordable housing on school populations and determined that the huge increase in school populations came not from the affordable units (built at a rate of one affordable unit to eight market units), but from the three-four-and-five bedroom homes built to offset the affordable units.
But, hey, the local officials said, more units, more ratables, lower taxes. Or so the myth went. Don’t tell them that those market rate houses were what fueled the real estate slump of 2007-2009 and are what now are eating a hole in their municipal budget through tax appeals.
A few years ago the United Way of Northern New Jersey coined a name for the population no one wanted to admit existed: ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. They work in stores, libraries, teach kids, drive cabs, make your lunch, volunteer at your church.
Yeah, some of them are old and frail, some are uneducated, some don’t speak English well, some are mentally and physically challenged.
But they are here.
And, according to that report, about 30 percent of them have trouble making ends meet, in part because they are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Reducing that amount by even a little increases that family’s ability to make ends meet, maybe even thrive.
So what will state government do?
Persist in a fight to maintain the status quo, repackage the old laws as new ideas, and miss the boat again.
The suburban boom is over. For any number of reasons, the population is contracting back to urbanized areas. The great movement has left hundreds of large homes, and millions of square feet of empty office space stretched across the horizon.
But state policy makers still believe in the Tooth Fairy, it seems. They will insist the state’s transit, business and housing infrastructure is just fine, when it is not.
How can you tell?
Forty years after the Mt. Laurel decision, the majority of the state’s big cities are still struggling to solve the same economic, housing and educational issues that existed in 1975.
And now the virus has spread to the suburbs.
And all the leafy streets, million-dollar condos and street fairs can’t disguise the pallor.