Report Enumerates Impact of New Jersey’s Mount Laurel Exclusionary Zoning Ruling, Offers Recommendations for Other States to Build on This Success

A new report by Fair Share Housing Center, Dismantling Exclusionary Zoning: New Jersey’s Blueprint for Overcoming Segregation, documents how New Jersey’s affordable housing model has led to the creation of more than 21,000 affordable homes since 2015. Through personal interviews and extensive data, the report examines the development of New Jersey’s Mount Laurel Doctrine, a series of New Jersey Supreme Court decisions that obligate towns to provide their fair share of a region’s affordable housing. The report distills lessons learned from New Jersey that can dismantle exclusionary zoning and help advance housing justice nationwide.

The report describes the origins of exclusionary zoning and its lasting effect on racial and economic segregation. It then details the 50-year-long organizing movement to combat exclusionary zoning in New Jersey, starting with Black residents in Mount Laurel Township who filed a class action lawsuit because they were experiencing rapid gentrification and displacement in the 1970s. In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court sided in favor of the residents, holding that all New Jersey municipalities are responsible for providing their “fair share” of affordable housing, both to create new affordable homes and rehabilitate existing substandard homes occupied by lower-income families. This decision, known as Mount Laurel I, would be the first in a series of cases where the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld and expanded on this constitutional obligation. Collectively, these decisions have become known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine. Upon winning the class action lawsuit, community leaders founded the Fair Share Housing Center to ensure effective implementation of the new Mount Laurel Doctrine. Despite persistent resistance to Mount Laurel 1, sustained advocacy and grassroots organizing succeeded in the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruling, in Mount Laurel IV, an improved enforcement mechanism in 2015, transferring enforcement to the judicial system and requiring towns to work with the Fair Share Housing Center and other parties to meet their affordable housing obligations.

New Jersey’s system assigns relatively higher or lower requirements for affordable housing to municipalities based on three main factors: recent growth in jobs, existing affordability, and vacant, developable land in areas targeted by the state for growth. The Mount Laurel Doctrine requires that at least half of all affordable units be affordable to residents earning less than 50% of the area median income (AMI), including 13% set-aside for residents earning less than 30% AMI.

The report suggests that the enhanced enforcement mechanisms put in place since 2015 have had a substantial effect on multi-family and affordable housing development. Since 2015, the report estimates that more than 21,000 affordable homes and roughly 70,000 units overall of multi-family housing have been created across New Jersey, a significant increase compared to previous years. Additional analysis of racial, ethnic, and economic demographics suggests that the Mount Laurel Doctrine is creating racial and income diversity where it did not exist or was lacking, and is creating affordable homes in New Jersey’s least diverse and most segregated communities.

The five key features of New Jersey’s model that could help create similar frameworks in other states include:

  1. A baseline legal requirement that municipalities must provide their fair share of affordable housing;
  2. A methodology to calculate housing obligations that prioritizes creating affordable homes in historically exclusionary communities, along transportation corridors, and near employment opportunities;
  3. A requirement that homes have deed restrictions requiring them to remain affordable for at least 30 years for the people most likely to be excluded, paired with flexible production mechanisms that also increase overall housing supply;
  4. Strong legal enforcement frameworks with real consequences for municipalities that shirk their obligations; and
  5. Advocacy institutions that use enforcement frameworks to ensure that municipalities comply with their obligations.

In New Jersey, the obligation to create affordable homes is recalculated every ten years in cycles of affordable housing production known as Rounds; each Round creates a new fair share obligation that towns must meet. As New Jersey prepares for its Fourth Round of Mount Laurel obligations in 2025, in which each municipality must develop an updated plan for how to provide additional affordable homes, this report serves as a reminder that the Doctrine’s success is predicated on the support of grassroots advocacy organizations, as well as strong enforcement.

"New Jersey's experience shows that when organizers and advocates work together over the long haul, we can create a lot of much-needed homes for lower-income families by dismantling exclusionary zoning,” said Adam Gordon, executive director of Fair Share Housing Center. “We hope that other cities and states can learn from what we have been able to accomplish as they seek to overcome barriers to creating affordable homes in the midst of the housing crisis America is experiencing today, as we continue to work to create even more homes here in New Jersey."

"We're proud that New Jersey has been home to groundbreaking policies and historic investments that have helped create opportunities for our most vulnerable residents,” says Staci Berger, an NLIHC board member and president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, an NLIHC state partner. “We cannot HouseNJ if we yield to obstruction of affordable homes, a resistance steeped in and sustained by structural and institutional racism. Housing stability is essential to better health outcomes and our state’s economic well-being, so we must continue on a path that will make our state a place everyone can afford to call home.”

The full report can be found at here.