During the 1960s, Mount Laurel Township in New Jersey underwent rapid growth that transformed the farm community into an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. During the same period, Mount Laurel officials began to strictly enforce housing codes in a part of Mount Laurel that had been a historically black community. As a result of the stringent code enforcement, substandard housing was condemned and low income households were ordered to vacate their homes and the community without relocation compensation. In 1969, a community activist, church leader, and daycare teacher named Ethel Lawrence petitioned the Mount Laurel zoning board to develop 36 affordable apartments for displaced families. Township officials vehemently opposed this proposal.
On May 1, 1971, a group of citizens lead by Ethel Lawrence and the NAACP chapters of Southern Burlington and Camden filed a class-action lawsuit against Mount Laurel Township, challenging the town’s zoning ordinance on the grounds that it excluded low and moderate income households from the community. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and Mount Laurel was ordered to develop a plan to address the affordable housing needs of its low income residents, as well as low income residents who could be expected to be employed in the Township. However, the Township appealed and the case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which in March 1975 upheld the lower court’s decision. The case became known as the landmark Mount Laurel I decision.
The Mount Laurel I decision established the principle that municipalities have an obligation through zoning to meet a fair share of the affordable housing need across the region. This ruling was the first in the nation to prohibit exclusionary zoning practices that make it impossible to develop affordable housing. In October 1975, a lead counsel in the Mount Laurel case, Peter O’Connor, and other civil rights activists founded the Fair Share Housing Center to monitor and enforce Mount Laurel I.
Between 1975 and 1983 most municipalities in New Jersey refused to implement Mount Laurel I. In addition, the Township “complied” by re-zoning three tracts that were inappropriate: one in an industrial park; a second in an area filled with wetlands far from public water and sewer, and therefore costly to develop; and a third that with zoning that would bar children in one-bedroom units while severely limiting the number of children in larger units. This lead to Mount Laurel II.
In 1983, responding to advocacy work by the Fair Share Housing Center, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that each municipality must provide its “fair share” of the regional need for affordable housing through zoning regulation. The Mount Laurel II decision required every town in New Jersey to affirmatively provide realistic opportunities for the development of affordable housing. In addition, the ruling also established a “builder’s remedy,” allowing a developer of affordable housing to sue a municipality if the developer could demonstrate that the municipality was not in compliance with its Mount Laurel obligations.
More information about Mount Laurel is at: http://fairsharehousing.org.
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