By Stephanie Sung
Mount Laurel, once a small, rural farming town in central New Jersey, has become a model for the integration of affordable housing in higher-income neighborhoods. A report by Princeton sociologist Douglas S. Massey called “Climbing Mount Laurel” reveals the positive outcomes of the long-fought land use battle, finding that fears of crime, drugs and blight were largely unfounded. The affluent families felt no impact, while low-income families saw their lives improve.
In a New York Times article, David L. Kirp reports:
There have been changes in life in Mount Laurel. But the changes are entirely consistent with those in demographically similar suburbs that surround the township. In all these communities, crime rates fell. Property values rose during the housing boom and dipped during the recession. Tax rates declined. Even in the Mount Laurel neighborhoods closest to the affordable housing, property values were unaffected. To most residents, the fact that poor families now live in Mount Laurel has proved entirely irrelevant. Today, many well-to-do Mount Laurel residents don’t even know that affordable housing exists there.
The lessons from Mount Laurel abound, but the timeline of the battle might give legacy city advocates some perspective, encouragement and energy as they work to meet long-term goals.
The fight for affordable housing units began in October, 1970, when Mount Laurel residents began to feel the shift of the farming town turning into a wealthy suburb. The New Jersey Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings in favor of the affordable housing units. The first ruling in 1978 was so fiercely contested that a second ruling took place in 1983 to solidify the deal. The justices ordered all New Jersey suburbs to rewrite their zoning laws to allow for a “fair share” of affordable housing.
However, it wasn’t until 1997 that the housing development was finally approved, with construction starting in 1999. And now, fourteen years later, we have positive news from a Princeton report:
Where you live profoundly shapes who you are. [. . .] The families that migrated to Mount Laurel — earning from 10 to 60 percent of median income — obtained more than a nicer house. They secured a new lease on life, a pathway out of poverty for the adults and a solid education for the children.