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A Brief History of New Jersey Affordable Housing Issue

May 6 2019.   New Providence Borough Council Testimony on Affordable Housing

I would like to spend a few minutes reminding everyone how we got to this point in New Providence and in New Jersey.  It was in 1975 that the Supreme Court of NJ first laid down the mandate that all towns in NJ must under the Constitution, provide affordable housing.

That 1975 decision, while still 45 years ago, does not mark the actual origin of the movement which resulted in the first Mt Laurel case.  The actual origin came in the 1960s amid the turmoil and trials of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, assassinations and more.

In the 60s the town of Mt Laurel Township was a rural, farm oriented area composed of tenant farmers and and small developments.  With the construction of some major highway systems in the area, the government officials began the process of “Planned Unit Development”, intended to transform the area into an affluent suburb.  No plans were considered for the large number of citizens who worked the farms and lived in sub-standard housing.  This community had a substantial black population which had resided in the area since the Revolutionary War.  The intended changes in zoning and development did not take into account this segment of the Mt Laurel Township community.

In 1969, Ethel Lawrence, a daycare teacher and mother of nine became active in organizing an effort to petition Mt Laurel to provide affordable housing for the long standing residents who could not afford the housing the officials planned.  Those who desired to remain in their traditional long standing community were on track to be forced out by the power structure. The push back from the local government came to a head in the fall of 1970 when the then Mayor of Mt Laurel Township Bill Haines, went to  Jacob’s Chapel A.M. E. Church and told the crowd of African-American parishioners: “If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave…”.  Little did Haines realize how profound those words would become, because it was those words which launched a groundswell that has created, anger, discord, distress and vast legal expense over a period of 49 years. Those words lead Ethel Lawrence and the coalition behind her to file a lawsuit that in 1972 lead to a lower court decision against the wealthy interest of Mt. Laurel and called for affordable housing to be available.  Mt Laurel would appeal that 1972 decision to the Supreme Court of NJ which lead to that court to establishing the mandate that we currently live under.

The Supreme Court wrote the following in its decision: “every…municipality must, by its land use regulations, presumptively make realistically possible an appropriate variety and choice of housing. More specifically, presumptively it cannot foreclose the opportunity of the classes of people mentioned for low and moderate income housing and in its regulations must affirmatively afford that opportunity, at least to the extent of the municipality’s fair share of the present and prospective regional need therefore.”

We are in our present situation because the state, the towns and many throughout the state refused to recognize that segregation of citizens for any reason, in this case economic, has not been good for our nation in the past and should not be maintained in the future. Had the principle of inclusion and desegregation not been fought by the wealthy towns of NJ for 44 years, we would not be having this discussion today.  We would instead be observing and embracing the diversity of this state and nation and celebrating that diversity.

It is time for us to move forward in an effort to alleviate the possible negative effects of higher density housing while we reject those who agree with the words of a Bill Haines and we embrace the principles espoused by Ethel Lawrence.