In 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in the landmark case, Burlington NAACP v. Mt. Laurel Township, limited the use of exclusionary zoning as a means of preventing the construction of affordable housing in wealthy communities. The Mt. Laurel case shaped zoning law across the country in the ensuing decades and the Mt. Laurel Doctrine is established precedent. Over the last 3 plus decades, we have seen the growth of low and moderate income housing in the suburbs, giving lower income families access to ownership of homes, in many cases for the first time. As such, these families have had access to crime free neighborhoods and better schools and to better long term success that come with these opportunities.

Mt. Laurel, in many respects, was the next logical step following the passage of the Fair Housing act in 1968 which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. While that Act certainly helped many people of color move to more affluent suburban communities, it didn’t do enough for lower income families. It was, and is only a single law dealing with discrimination. Mt. Laurel exposed a problem. Local governments manipulated zoning laws to segregate communities by income and consequently, by race.

Despite the Mt. Laurel Doctrine, local governments have done nothing to encourage economic desegregation. Recognizing this problem, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently introduced the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility and Equity Act (HOME Act) (not yet assigned a bill number). The bill would close the loop on Mt. Laurel and take the Fair Housing Act to its natural next step. It would promote more inclusive zoning policies in order to economically and thus racially desegregate housing and make it more affordable.

The Act provides that states, cities and counties receiving funding under the Community Development Block Grant Program for infrastructure and housing would be required to develop new strategies to reduce barriers to housing development and creating the housing supply. Governments would be required to support new, inclusive zoning policies which create a “more affordable, elastic and diverse housing supply.” Best practices should include: authorizing higher density, eliminating off street parking requirements, establishing density bonuses, removing height limitations, prohibiting income discrimination, relaxing size restrictions and allowing accessory dwelling units. This list is not complete and are examples of things you don’t see in the suburbs and in planned communities.

The Act would also create a new refundable tax credit for renters who pay more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.

The legislation would also provide local governments with incentives to allow “by right development” so that projects meeting zoning requirements could be administratively approved. If developers can save on the costs of lengthy hearings, the costs could be passed on to the end users, further reducing housing costs. Local elected officials (and staff, for that matter) are painfully blind to their role in the end cost of rents and sale price.

The topic of economic segregation in housing is not often talked about. The fact that it leads to racial segregation means that it should be discussed and addressed. That is not yet addressed by the Fair Housing Act makes it an important topic. President Obama sounded the warnings and Senator Booker’s proposed legislation goes a long way to addressing this important issue. However, ultimately, it will be up to the states to mandate that local governments eliminate economic segregation and take steps similar to Senator Booker’s proposals.

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