The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 20, 2014

Ethel Lawrence's efforts produced 40,000 affordable homes in New Jersey

May 20, 2014

Douglas Massey’s book Climbing Mount Laurel is as much a story as it is a study.

The story itself is a compelling one, chronicling the efforts of community matriarch Ethel Lawrence to establish decent affordable housing for the low- and very low-income residents of Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Lawrence’s efforts resulted in the creation of affordable housing in Mount Laurel and led the way for the New Jersey Supreme Court decisions known as Mount Laurel I and II. These decisions established the Fair Share Housing policy, which led to the creation of over 40,000 units of affordable housing in areas outside of New Jersey’s racially and economically segregated urban areas.

The “Mount Laurel Doctrine” prohibits New Jersey townships from discriminating against low-income individuals and households through land use and zoning policy. The irony of the Mount Laurel story is that if the township of Mount Laurel simply proceeded with developing the original 36 units of affordable housing that Ethel Lawrence fought for, the resulting Mount Laurel doctrine would never have happened. Because of Lawrence’s tenacity, advocacy, and passion, instead of 36 units of affordable housing being built, over 40,000 units of affordable housing have been built. These units are a lasting legacy in the name of Ethel Lawrence.

The story of Mount Laurel has profound significance, but the study Douglas Massey and his colleagues conducted is also important. The authors used a methodology that was sound and scientific, demonstrating unequivocally that the presence of affordable housing did not produce any negative impact on the adjacent communities. The affordable housing did not hurt the property values of the adjacent communities, nor did it cause local taxes to increase. The local crime rate did not increase and schools did not experience any negative impact on test scores. Despite the notoriety associated with New Jersey’s Supreme Court decisions, many people in the adjacent communities were unaware that the affordable housing community named for Ethel Lawrence was an affordable housing community.

Further, the study also measured the satisfaction of the Ethel Lawrence Homes residents and the positive effects they experienced from living in affordable housing within an economically and racially diverse suburban community. The residents experienced satisfaction as a result of living in a safer environment, with access to better-quality amenities and better-quality schools. Students spent more time studying and, as a result, performed well in school. The study’s ability to measure satisfaction and stress levels also underscored the emotional and mental well-being that can result when families are able to live in non-segregated areas. Perhaps most important, Climbing Mount Laurel provides conclusive evidence to demonstrate the importance and value of providing affordable housing for low- to very low-income individuals and households.

Image of Mount Laurel Homes in New Jersey, from Google Street View.

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