Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 31, 2014

The Future of Fair Housing

By David Reiss

I attended an interesting discussion of the Mount Holly fair housing case today.  The question presented in the case was: “Are disparate impact claims cognizable under the Fair Housing Act?” The case was settled before the Supreme Court had an opportunity to hear it. The conventional wisdom is that a number of Justices on the Supreme Court would take a hard look at disparate impact claims generally if a case were ever to reach them.

Mount Holly happens to be next to Mount Laurel, home to another important fair housing dispute that is the subject of a recent book,  Climbing Mount Laurel.  Douglas Massey, one of the co-authors of Climbing Mount Laurel, is also the author of one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Massey’s new book takes a look at how the Mount Laurel dispute has played out over time:

Under the New Jersey State Constitution as interpreted by the State Supreme Court in 1975 and 1983, municipalities are required to use their zoning authority to create realistic opportunities for a fair share of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households. Mount Laurel was the town at the center of the court decisions. As a result, Mount Laurel has become synonymous with the debate over affordable housing policy designed to create economically integrated communities. What was the impact of the Mount Laurel decision on those most affected by it? What does the case tell us about economic inequality?

Climbing Mount Laurel undertakes a systematic evaluation of the Ethel Lawrence Homes–a housing development produced as a result of the Mount Laurel decision. Douglas Massey and his colleagues assess the consequences for the surrounding neighborhoods and their inhabitants, the township of Mount Laurel, and the residents of the Ethel Lawrence Homes. Their analysis reveals what social scientists call neighborhood effects–the notion that neighborhoods can shape the life trajectories of their inhabitants. Climbing Mount Laurel proves that the building of affordable housing projects is an efficacious, cost-effective approach to integration and improving the lives of the poor, with reasonable cost and no drawbacks for the community at large.

The United States’ history of residential segregation is a tragedy that unfolds in slow motion from decade to decade. Fair housing lawsuits in places such as Mount Holly and Mount Laurel are obviously important, but also feel like drops in the bucket of a much, much bigger problem. Unfortunately, it is such a big problem that solutions that have been proposed appear to be mere band-aids on the one hand or Utopian on the other. Let’s hope that there is a middle path that can develop between those two approaches.

| Permalink