To many people in New Jersey, it is an article of faith that every town is a castle, that home rule gives more than 600 local governments the unassailable right to control their own turf.
And if the locals want to build a park, fine. If they want to shape their own school curriculum, fine, or hire more cops. Home rule has its place.
But when you turn to the housing market, unfettered home rule is a curse to this state and always has been. It’s allowed towns to use zoning laws to build walls that restrict the supply of housing, driving up prices for everyone, and leaving a shortfall of more than 200,000 affordable homes. It’s the key reason our public schools are more segregated than those in Alabama.
“That’s what zoning was for, to exclude people on the basis of class, and to exclude people on the basis of race,” says Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “You get this zip code determination that exists in New Jersey. We should be building more housing. To me, it’s one of the most critical issues we face in this state.
As it happens, the Legislature is considering a bill that would help, and a vote could come as early as next week. It’s already moved through one committee in each house.
The bill doesn’t make radical changes. That came back in 1975 when the state Supreme Court delivered its game-changing Mr. Laurel ruling, finding that the Burlington County township used its zoning rules so aggressively that it violated the rights of poor families who wanted to live in town. The NAACP was the lead plaintiff.
Mt. Laurel’s leaders didn’t explicitly bar Blacks, of course, but they moved to condemn and demolish the town’s low-income housing, while using zoning rules to block replacement units. The effect was similar.
In a series of cases, the Court ruled that each town in New Jersey has an obligation to provide a “realistic opportunity” to build low-cost housing.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The rulings broke down walls and allowed thousands of families to find homes, but local governments found way to resist, and under Gov. Chris Christie, the state basically gave up. That slammed the brakes on construction of low-income housing and led to hundreds of expensive and time-consuming court fights.
That tangled process is what the bill tries to fix. It instructs the state Department of Community Affairs to come up with a reasonable goal for each town’s affordable housing allotment, based on factors like available space, and the existing housing stock. When towns disagree with the DCA’s number, they can seek mediation overseen by the courts, and if they’re still unhappy, they can file suit as a final recourse, under this bill.
The Senate sponsor is Sen. Troy Singleton, a Democrat from Burlington County, and a leading Black voice in the Legislature.
“We don’t want to disrupt the fabric of New Jersey, but we do want to create an avenue for people of all socioeconomic levels to live throughout the state,” he says.
Restrictive zoning, he says, “not only concentrated poverty in certain areas, but was frankly used to keep communities separated by race. That’s an ongoing vestige of public policy, not just in New Jersey but beyond. We are aggressively trying to remove those vestiges with this legislation, so people of all ethnicities can live everywhere in the state.”
I’m not suggesting opposition to low-income housing is inevitably rooted in racism. Racists are on board, sure, but there are other motivations. One outspoken opponent of this legislation is the mayor of West Windsor, Hemant Marathe, and for him, this is about taxes.
Housing brings children who attend local schools, by far the biggest driver of local property taxes. If the child lives in house worth $2 million, that homeowner pays enough taxes to cover the costs. Cheaper housing, he says, doesn’t do the job.
“They have to fix how education is funded,” Marathe says. “That’s the basic thing.”
Even middle-class housing, he says, can drive up his town’s taxes.
“Why do you think mayors are building warehouses?” he asks. “It’s a way to make that land unavailable for big apartment buildings. That’s why.”
There’s more to the cost question than the mayor’s math allows. Lower-income kids bring more state aid, and that softens the blow. More housing often brings more businesses as well, and they pay taxes. And state taxes go up when concentrated poverty brings its many social ills along with it.
In Newark, Baraka says, the state spends more on schools, health care, and crime to cope with the effects of concentrated poverty. When poor families find decent housing in the suburbs, study after study has shown that they are more likely to support themselves and avoid all those ills.
“You’re spending money taking care of problems that could be taken care of on the front end,” Baraka says.
New Jersey is a blue state, and liberals here take pride in progressive laws on things like guns, abortion, and the minimum wage. But what about housing? What about the people next door?
New York is a blue state, too. But in April Democratic legislators from its suburbs killed an effort by Gov. Kathy Hochul to break down zoning rules that block low-cost housing in its mostly white suburbs.
The question now is whether New Jersey can do better. And thanks to the guardrails established by the Mt. Laurel rulings, our chances are good.