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Opinion: Speaking Truth to Power in Mt. Holly

Under the guise of 'redevelopment,' Mount Holly has been carrying out what amounts to 'socio-economic cleansing' of lower-income areas.

For the past decade, lawyers for Mount Holly have been hard at work trying to destroy a once viable and mostly black and Hispanic community in a section of town known as "the Gardens." They are doing this at taxpayer expense, replacing locals with higher-income and presumably lighter-skinned residents as part of the township’s court-approved “redevelopment plan.”

What’s happening in Mt. Holly is an example of the “unfettered discretion” that enables local governments to engage in “exclusionary redevelopment,” a subversion of the “inclusionary zoning” mandates of the State Supreme Court in the well-known Mount Laurel cases, to quote and paraphrase Olga Pomar, an anti-poverty lawyer who has been representing at-risk residents for nearly a decade.

Today, fewer than 100 residents remain in the Gardens. They are the last of the 1,600 residents who had lived there since the 1950s, until Mt. Holly began buying up homes and immediately demolishing them. In this way, life is made miserable for the remaining families. The “holdouts” are pressured to accept as “compensation” $32,000 for a one-bedroom unit and up to $49,000 for a three-bedroom townhouse. Even in today’s depressed real estate markets, these prices are shockingly low.

Thankfully, a state court judge recently put a temporary hold on further demolitions. After a site visit by Judge Hogan, he agreed with the residents that when Mt. Holly was tearing down the row homes it had already acquired, it was failing to “protect the remaining structures” against damage. The judge saw “openings with cracks” in exterior walls that were leaving the adjoining homes vulnerable to “weather intrusions” as well as “rodents and insects.”

But Judge Hogan’s injunction is temporary. It could be lifted any time. All the township needs to do is to devise a workable “plan” that addresses the “finishing of the sides of their homes” and the bulldozers could be back at work -- ripping out row homes and driving their neighbors to give up and accept the township’s offers.

The township's strategy is obvious. Its lawyers want to avoid formal condemnation proceedings against the tenants, which would force Mount Holly to disclose its appraisals, negotiate in good faith and offer fair market value -- subject to a possible jury trial. Instead of these legal processes, the township is letting bulldozers and sledge hammers take care of the socio-economic cleansing. Make life miserable for residents, and they will give up, surrender their homes and take the paltry sums they are being offered and go away.

How did this tragedy come about? It goes back to a 2002 consultant’s report claiming that all 327 of the Garden’s homes are a source of “blight” because they do not come close to complying with constitutional standards.

As defined by the State Supreme Court, blight is “something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions” as seen in “substandard and unsanitary housing” that is hazardous to the occupants and “negatively affects surrounding areas.”

Stated bluntly, blight is about “negative conditions that are causing an economic domino effect, devastating surrounding properties.” Blight is not property “operated in a less than optimal” condition as compared with an idealized view of how great it would be to build newer, far-more expensive homes. Blight is not about legalized class warfare against the less affluent; at least it’s not supposed to be.

How then to explain Mt. Holly and its clear cutting of the Gardens? In 2007 an appeals court upheld Mt. Holly’s blight declaration. That decision came out a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s seminal Gallenthin v. Paulsboro ruling that greatly restricted the “redevelopment area” findings being routinely approved across New Jersey. Among the key aspects of Gallenthin was that a municipality must weigh and consider the “benefits” contributed by the allegedly blighted property.

Had the court that upheld Mt. Holly weighed the benefits of the Gardens, it would have had to find that these modest homes are a source of community for more than a thousand mostly minority homeowners. Since the 1950s the Gardens has provided safe, decent, affordable and privately owned housing. Once it’s gone, it will not be replaced.

Ask yourself. Is this really America in 2010? Apparently it is. But it's also American to stand up and fight such injustice.

On Saturday, October 30, that battle will be joined. The Institute for Justice will host a “Block Party” protest against the mistreatment of the Gardens residents, starting at noon at 347 South Martin Avenue. All are invited to see for themselves if these modest homes should have been classified as “blighted” -- the magic word giving Mt. Holy “unfettered discretion,” in Pomar’s words, to eradicate the Gardens.

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