community suburb

The stark facts of housing segregation and discrimination are not the products of happenstance or random selection. They exist because they were engineered by explicit government laws and policies that served to entrench exclusionary practices. Their legacy persists in New Jersey and throughout the U.S.

In his acclaimed book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein details the litany of discriminatory federal and state laws and policies put into place throughout the 20th century to build the nation’s segregated public housing projects. FDR’s Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mandated racial separation in housing, denying mortgages to qualifying African-Americans and precluding blacks from the promise of suburban homeownership. Government programs such as the “Own Your Own Home” campaign sought to promote homeownership, but only for white families.

At the same time, the FHA actively dissembled organically-formed integrated communities, replacing those with urban housing projects for people of color. It sanctioned the practice known as “redlining,” whereby housing brokers, agents and developers would steer black prospective home buyers and renters into the least desirable zones within districts literally redlined for people of color on FHA maps. Whites, by contrast, were directed into prime zones with access to better schools, roads and infrastructures.

As white families were given a hand up with generous lending opportunities so that they could find a home in the booming suburban housing market, more and more blacks were forced to remain dependent on public housing. To further ensure that black families would be kept out of white neighborhoods, exclusionary zoning regulations and racially restrictive covenants were widely promulgated.

Thereafter, in spite of the 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act and its prohibition against discrimination in housing, de facto discrimination and exclusion endured. Well into the 20th century, black families attempting to move into predominantly white neighborhoods faced physical attack and threats.

Today, in countless regions throughout the country the promise of housing integration has yet to be achieved. Each year, major metropolitan cities see dramatic increases in house value segregation.

New Jersey remains highly segregated in housing, education, income, wealth and incarceration rates. In so many ways, where we live determines how we live. It forecasts our income, wealth, education, health, social capital and political efficacy.

In 1975, the Supreme Court of New Jersey took a pioneering step toward the promise of inclusion with its unanimous Mt. Laurel ruling. There the court held that the state constitution requires that every developing township provide its fair share of the overall regional need for low and moderate-income housing. That constitutional mandate to assure inclusionary housing opportunities was met with fierce resistance, delay and studied inaction.

In the four decades since its ruling, the court has vigorously reaffirmed the Mt. Laurel imperative. But the “not in my backyard” syndrome continues to impede the promise of inclusion. Today, in courtrooms, town council meetings, and backroom strategy sessions townships fight the mandate. That fight is fueled by fears that the inclusion of affordable housing will compromise property values, neighborhood safety and quality of life.

Those fears are refuted by data and experience. For example, in Climbing Mt. Laurel, Princeton sociologist Doug Massey and his colleagues showed that economically integrated housing developments built within suburbs can and do succeed.

Mt. Laurel’s own Ethel R. Lawrence Homes (named for the plaintiff in the first Mt. Laurel case) is one of those success stories. It is an inclusionary residential development built in the middle of that township’s more affluent neighborhood. Like others of its kind, it has proven to be an effective approach to integration, enhancing the lives of the poor and saving taxpayer dollars without a downside for the surrounding community. The researchers found no evidence of any decrease in surrounding property values, and no increase in crime or property taxes. Instead, total average income increased significantly for those given the opportunity to live in Mt. Laurel.

Knowledge is power, and when we know better we pave the way for meaningful reform. The fear of “the other,” however conceived, can be allayed by education, proximity and the data that shows that inclusion redounds to the benefit of all.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The story of how modern housing segregation came to be and has been allowed to persist needs to be faced. It is only when we understand the extent to which actual laws and policies ordained exclusion that we become more fully equipped and emboldened to remediate the legacy of that injustice.

The promise of inclusion can be achieved. We can and must summon a collective recognition that what we do for others, we do for ourselves.

Note: On May 16, 2018, Seton Hall Law School, in partnership with Monarch Housing, the NJ Institute for Social Justice, the Anti-Poverty Center and the NJ Office of the Attorney General will present The Color of Law: A Conversation with Prof. Richard Rothstein.

Paula A. Franzese is the Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School in Newark. Richard Brown is the CEO of Monarch Housing Associates.