In New Jersey, tensions between developers, fair-housing advocates, and policymakers are rising in the state’s long-standing dispute over affordable housing. The mayor of Robbinsville, David Fried, recently promoted the return of a currently outlawed program that allows one town to pay another to construct up to one-half of their required share of affordable units. Presiding over a town that added more than 2,000 jobs after building an Amazon warehouse last year, Fried advocated for building half of the town’s share of affordable housing in Trenton. “We need to start building our cities. What they should be doing is putting the affordable housing in areas where there is more need,” he said.

However, Fried wants to revive a monster. The program, abolished in 2008, managed to further the concentration of poverty in one of the most segregated states in the country by allowing wealthier towns to pay poorer towns to construct up to half of their fair housing obligation, thereby keeping out the poor and protecting their wealthy neighborhood status.

Moreover, Fried is simply wrong about where housing is needed: his town’s new Amazon warehouse is largely staffed by workers from Trenton who are bused in each day because they are unable to access housing where they work. Contrary to the mayor’s remarks, we do not need more affordable housing in areas that are already impoverished (Trenton has a poverty rate of nearly 30 percent), but instead in areas of opportunity, close to jobs and high-quality schools. This is a sentiment consistent with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new rule released on July 8, which enforces fair housing and encourages diversifying wealthy areas like Robbinsville. Sadly, though, Fried’s views are not surprising in a state that consistently enforces exclusionary zoning policies in order to preserve insulated and affluent enclaves.

Exclusionary Housing

Decisionmakers discriminate through measures like exclusionary zoning policies and restrictions on affordable housing development. For example, in New Jersey, the prevalence of residential land zoned for large, single-family homes makes it impossible to properly accommodate for a mix of housing types and diverse residents. Inevitably, exclusion falls along racial lines, as minorities traditionally have less wealth and credit than their white counterparts and continue to be victims of insidious practices like predatory lending. As the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged in last month’s fair housing decision, zoning restrictions “function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any sufficient justification.” In the case of New Jersey, this also means trapping them in cities like Camden or Trenton, where jobs are disappearing.

Unfortunately, these exclusionary policies, veiled behind rhetoric that does not explicitly acknowledge race or class, rarely meet the opposition they deserve. For example, in 2012, a representative of a Texan homeowners association opposed the construction of 68 low-income rental apartments, saying “It just didn’t fit with us,” citing that the area was for single family homes only. Moreover, developers who might otherwise be sympathetic to the need for mixed-income housing are dissuaded by current residents in integration-resistant and organized suburban communities. In one of New Jersey’s most affluent towns, residents refused to rezone a property for mixed uses and incomes, with a councilman warning that the development “could totally change the complexion” of the area. Though these debates usually avoid the explicit use of racial terminology, it is clear that exclusionary housing policies have racially discriminatory undertones.

Racialized Space

Segregation is not only about excluding economic and social resources, but also about racialized physical space. Land use policies have concentrated minority communities in inner city spaces, limiting their access to jobs, schools, recreational spaces, and safe neighborhoods.

In a larger sense, segregation encourages a normalization of racialized space; the consequences can be the escalation of race-based violence. In several cases, white community members have been quick to act when confronted with a situation outside of the indoctrinated racial norm that connects blackness, poverty, and urbanity. For example, a woman at the Craig Ranch North Community Pool in McKinney, Texas, a deeply racially and economically divided suburb, told black party-goers to “go back to [their] Section 8 home.” This remark illustrates the powerful connection between affordable housing and race that furthers negative stereotypes and even violence. In Sanford, Florida in 2012, George Zimmerman did not think Trayvon Martin belonged in his gated community, since it was a privatized white-enclave designed to protect its residents from the presumed ills of concentrated poverty and its racial connotations.

Fighting the Stereotype

Housing segregation is a tragedy. Yet, perhaps even more disheartening is that this system continues; despite the fact that successful alternatives are readily available, we fail to embrace them. In a case study of an affordable housing complex built in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, the sociologist Douglas Massey found that when affordable housing was constructed and located thoughtfully, none of the classic fears about crime or fiscal impact materialized. In this case, a small housing community, Ethel Lawrence Homes(pictured above), allows families earning between 10 and 60 percent of the median income, to move out of rent-controlled apartments in inner-city Camden and into the affluent environment of Mount Laurel. It took decades of tireless advocacy to build the development, which proved to be an overall success: there were no consequent adverse effects on property taxes, property values, or crime rates, as the development’s opponents had feared. In fact, after its construction, many long-time residents of Mount Laurel were unaware of the new complex. The study shows that building affordable housing complexes in areas of opportunity will not only provide valuable resources to the residents of the complexes, but also will not disrupt current neighborhoods, if they are planned carefully and thoughtfully.

We are at a critical point where our cities and towns can either continue to exclude deserving potential residents, or they can rise to accommodate the growing housing need. It is also time for the racialized stereotype of low-cost housing to change, as an increasing number of Americans are burdened by the costs of living, from wealthy residents in Seattle to young graduates looking to live in thriving cities. When we create mixed income housing that allows for diversity in opportune spaces, we are also meeting their needs. It is time to fight back against the exclusionary and racialized policies of affluent suburban areas.

Photo Credit: David N. Kinsey