Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Fair housing under the Mt. Laurel doctrine is resurrected in New Jersey

On January 18th, days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump would unsettle expectations of HUD’s role in supporting federal fair housing, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the vitality of the state’s own constitutional requirement that all municipalities provide their “fair share” of the regional need for affordable housing.  That constitutional requirement had been dead for 18 years, thanks to recalcitrance by the governor and the state regulatory body—the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH)—to decide rules for calculating each town’s housing obligations. 

It turns out the obligation was merely comatose, not dead, revived by last week’s decision.  There, the Supreme Court agreed with appellant Fair Share Housing Center’s arguments that the period of dormancy from 1999 to the present must be counted.  Numerous municipalities had sued for a court order (declaratory judgment) excluding that period from consideration, seeking to count only unmet housing need during the last calculation, present need and prospective housing need.  Fair Share Housing Centre argued that “pent-up” housing need during the 17 years in which the government failed to enforce the statutory obligations on towns could not be ignored.  The Supreme Court agreed.  Still remaining is the precise method for calculating that pent-up need.  Look for periodic data briefs in the coming months in which CLiME documents some of the critical housing-related changes that have hit New Jersey since 1999.

The latest Mt. Laurel decision is a victory for metropolitan equity of the highest order.  New Jersey is the third most racially segregated state in the nation, and economic segregation—at which the Mt. Laurel doctrine is aimed—closely tracks racial stratification.  The generation lost to government housing neglect included dynamic changes in immigration, a still-unresolved foreclosure crisis, widening wealth inequality, population growth, economic restructuring and, of course, the Great Recession.  Ignoring its effects on the regional need for fair housing was an appalling abdication of governmental and constitutional responsibility for the thousands of New Jersey households struggling with residential instability, a lack of housing choice and the resulting consequences for individual opportunity and mobility.  With the obligation restored, advocates have regained a tool—and municipalities have regained an incentive—to bring about greater regional balance and the collective economic benefits that flow from it.

The work is not over.  Cases will return to court.  The Mt. Laurel doctrine will remain an abstract puzzle of mathematical formulations, understood only through sophisticated expert analyses seemingly disconnected from the lives of people whose life chances are potentially bettered by wider, fairer housing choice.  Integrated living, a benefit many Americans have abandoned, is still a ways off.  But it got an important step closer to resurrection with last week’s New Jersey Supreme Court decision. 

Even amid dramatic national change, a lot about life is still local.