New Jersey Towns’ Efforts to Shirk Housing Obligation

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly over the last several decades that wealthy towns cannot legally prevent the development of affordable housing that gives low- and moderate-income workers and their families access to good schools, decent jobs and a path to the middle class.

Last week, the court told communities that have long resisted the rulings that they cannot escape their responsibilities through legal sleight of hand — and will be held accountable for meeting housing needs that accumulated while they were failing to act. The court decision is not only entirely correct but could eventually rectify years of discrimination.

The original case dates back to the 1970s. when low-income, minority families found themselves priced out of Mount Laurel, a growing New Jersey suburb not far from Philadelphia, in part because local authorities had blocked construction of a modest affordable-housing development.

The community sued, and in the 1980s the court ruled that towns could not deny affordable housing and, beyond that, had an affirmative obligation to create zoning laws allowing for a “fair share” of affordable housing based on growth, job opportunities and income.

The decades-long litigation has made possible the creation of more than 80,000 homes that have improved the lives of low- and moderate-income New Jerseyans. But tens of thousands of affordable homes that should have been built never were partly because of delaying actions by towns and a blatant sabotage effort by Gov. Chris Christie, who thumbed his nose at the court and actually tried, unsuccessfully, to dismantle the state fair housing agency. The Supreme Court rightly took the housing program away from the state and instructed the lower courts to manage it.

The town governments that appeared last year before the court argued that they should not be held responsible for affordable housing that had not been built during the years of obstruction. This complaint seemed to infuriate the justices, who ruled unanimously that no credible reading of the court’s past rulings would support such an outcome, and that the towns were still “constitutionally obligated” to provide a fair share of the affordable housing need.

The latest ruling could easily allow development of tens of thousands of new homes for low- and moderate-income families. But given how the towns have behaved so far, the court would be wise to keep a close eye on what they do.

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