Local Government Protection of Affordable Housing

In 1975 the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that municipalities could not prevent low income and minority residents from moving to their communities by hiding behind zoning laws. Future court decisions in the Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel case made it clearer that the state had to provide housing for low income residents. Since this ruling, New Jersey cities and towns developed rules allowing for affordable housing which were approved by a Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). In 1999 COAH did not renew its rules and in the 15 years following, New Jersey has failed to develop updated regulations on how to fairly allocate housing. In October 2014, COAH tried again, but could not pass a vote on new regulations. Affordable housing advocates are asking the New Jersey court to step in and enforce the housing rules. New Jersey governor Chris Chrisitie is a vocal opponent to these housing rules and in 2012 stated at a town hall that “the state constitution doesn’t say New Jerseyans have a “right to affordable housing.”.[1]

Should affordable housing be a right? It is possible that New Jersey’s Supreme Court will step in to resolve this issue and could make it clear that housing is a right that the government should protect.

If this happens, then the role of the court as an enforcer of fair housing laws and policy could become more established. Perhaps this is a necessary outcome to protect the civil rights of low- and moderate-income families, which often tend to overlap with racial minorities, and prevent them from losing their homes. Housing is often the primary cost of any household, and unfortunately this cost continues to outpace income. In the 2014 How Housing Works Survey, 58 percent of Americans thought their state and local governments could do more for affordable housing. Half of the respondents said that they were cutting expenses in other areas to keep up with the cost of housing.

With a stable home and environment, it makes it simpler to hold a job and provide for a family. Searching for and maintaining housing should not be an additional burden that our society puts on the poor. Affordable housing programs should strive to disrupt the cycle of poverty and prevent homelessness. In a number of cities, court orders and legislation are forcing city planners to distribute affordable housing across the community rather than building only in low-income areas. Results from these mobility programs are mixed, but in Chicago and Baltimore, when combined with counselling, families moving to wealthier parts of town do better over time than families who stay in affordable housing developments in areas with high poverty rates.[2]

In some places, it looks like local governments are trying to protect a right to housing by allocating more resources to help the poor obtain housing. There is an increasing willingness to set aside millions of dollars for housing funds in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. In addition to its housing mobility program, Chicago is pressuring developers to create affordable units either in or near new developments in wealthier districts in town. Lawmakers should continue to take steps to increase access to affordable housing in meaningful ways, and courts should not hesitate to enforce those measures when cities and states fail to secure those rights.

 

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[1] Matt Katz, Christie reopens criticism of Democrats at Mt. Laurel town hall, Philadelphia inquirer, October 12, 2012, http://articles.philly.com/2012-10-12/news/34388528_1_christie-town-hall-senate-democrats

[2] See Baltimore: http://www.naacpldf.org/press-release/baltimore-public-housing-families-win-settlement-fair-housing-lawsuit; Dallas: http://keranews.org/post/dallas-housing-discrimination-case-takes-center-stage-us-supreme-court; and Chicago: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/is-ending-segregation-the-key-to-ending-poverty/385002/?utm_source=SFFB

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Esther Agbaje is a 3L at HLS, and she is from Minnesota. She is interested in public interest law focused on infrastructure, energy, housing, and civil rights. She is active in Harvard’s Black Law Student Association, HLS Democrats, and the Harvard African Law Association. She is also a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Before coming to law school, she managed rule of law projects for the U.S. Department of State in the Middle East with a country focus on Egypt. Esther has a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

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