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Editors Note: Douglas Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, outlined the history and current condition of a thriving affordable housing development in a recent presentation, “Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb.” The presentation was part of a speaker series hosted by HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

 

Moving to Opportunity in Mount Laurel, New Jersey

by Douglas S. Massey

The Ethel R. Lawrence Homes entrance sign is located along the community entrance.
In 1967, a group of poor African American residents in the township of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a burgeoning, affluent suburb of Philadelphia, found that they were being priced out of the housing market in their own hometown. With federal funding, these residents formed a community action committee to develop a small affordable housing project in the township. Local officials refused to authorize the development, however, claiming that it violated local zoning ordinances. The committee sued, and in a landmark 1983 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court introduced the Mount Laurel doctrine. The Mount Laurel doctrine states that the New Jersey constitution forbids localities from writing land use regulations that exclude affordable housing and that each municipality has an “affirmative obligation” to provide for its “fair share” of the regional need for such housing.

Despite the court victory, the housing project did not open its doors until late 2000. Named for the lead plaintiff in the Mount Laurel case, who died before her dream could be fulfilled, the Ethel Lawrence Homes (ELH) development consists of 140 units affordable to families earning between 10 and 80 percent of the regional median income. The development did not arrive without protest, however. In local planning board hearings, township residents denounced the project, alleging that it would increase crime rates, reduce property values, and cause local taxes to rise. Proponents countered that such fears were overblown and that the project would instead provide deserving families with a pathway to economic independence.

With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, my colleagues and I began a comprehensive analysis to determine which of these two scenarios ultimately prevailed. To assess the effect of ELH on the community, we compiled data on home values, crime rates, and tax rates before and after the project’s opening for Mount Laurel and three nearby comparison townships. The data revealed neither a disjuncture in trends after 2001 nor any difference in levels or trends between Mount Laurel and the comparison townships, conclusions confirmed by a rigorous statistical analysis. As the project’s defenders had predicted, ELH had no discernible effect on crime, taxes, or property values in Mount Laurel.

Four children play in a yard adjacent to two-story residential units within the Ethel Lawrence Homes community.

To assess the effect of ELH on the lives of its residents, we surveyed current and former ELH residents during the fall and winter of 2009–2010 along with a comparison sample of persons who had applied for ELH residence. ELH units are allocated on a first-come, first served basis from a waiting list that we obtained from project developers. Using the list, we matched project residents with applicants using propensity scores computed from information contained on the application form. The matched residents and applicants therefore have roughly comparable social, economic, and demographic backgrounds, and both groups self-selected as people desiring to move into an affordable housing project in an affluent white suburb.

A comparison of the two groups showed that residents’ lives improved markedly after moving into ELH. Compared with those on the waiting list, ELH residents experienced much lower levels of exposure to neighborhood disorder and violence, many fewer negative life events, and improved mental health. They also evinced higher rates of employment, higher wages and family incomes, lower levels of welfare dependency, and a marked improvement in general economic independence. ELH residents were more involved in the education of their children. Children of ELH residents were much more likely to report having a quiet place to study and spent an average of 6 more hours per week on homework compared with the children of applicants. The schools they attended were superior by every measure, from class size to test scores to the availability of advanced placement courses, and were characterized by much lower levels of disorder and violence. Despite their move into much more competitive educational settings, resident children’s grades did not suffer.

In the end, we conclude that ELH is much more than an affordable housing project. The development offers a model of how affordable housing can (1) be built within an advantaged community without negatively affecting property values, crime rates, or tax burdens and (2) provide needy families with a firm pathway to improved life circumstances, economic independence, and better educational outcomes for children. The project, which was financed largely with federal low-income housing tax credits, represents not only a potential solution to the nation’s critical shortage of affordable housing but also a highly effective antipoverty program.

 
 
 


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