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A Historic Fair Housing Decision Reaffirmed

N.Y. Times, Sept. 30, 2013

By the Editorial Board

The New Jersey Supreme Court has wisely rejected an attempt by Gov. Chris Christie to undermine its 30-year-old-ruling in the Mount Laurel fair housing case, one of the more important civil rights decisions of the modern era. In last week’s strongly worded decision, the court made clear that it would be keeping a close eye on both the Christie administration and wealthy communities that might be inclined to flout the law, which limits the use of exclusionary zoning as a means of preventing the construction of affordable housing.

The original case dates to the 1960s, when low-income minority citizens found themselves priced out of the suburb of Mount Laurel, not far from Philadelphia. The families went to court after local authorities barred the construction of a small affordable housing development. The court ruled that municipalities could not exclude affordable housing and, further, had an affirmative obligation to write zoning laws that provided for a “fair share” of such housing based on growth, job opportunities and income.

The landmark ruling has encouraged the construction of tens of thousands of homes for low- and moderate-income working families, giving less-well-off families access to jobs and allowing their children to grow up in safer communities with better schools. Mr. Christie, however, has been attacking the Mount Laurel decision from almost the day he was sworn in. He also sought to dismantle the independent agency that oversees affordable housing, but he was prevented from doing so by the court.

The central issue in last week’s ruling was Mr. Christie’s effort to interpret the “fair share” mandate in a way that would essentially allow communities to decide for themselves how much affordable housing should be built. This, in turn, would give hostile communities license to block affordable housing.

Confronted with this threat, the court asserted that it had a clear duty to enforce the rights of low-income citizens under the State Constitution. In so doing, it served notice that it would brook no more foot-dragging on the part of the state.

© 2013 The New York Times

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