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Op-Ed: Will the Supreme Court Open Doors to NJ’s Wealthiest Communities?

Rather than welcoming inclusion, too many rich towns have perpetuated longstanding practices that lock out families of color from access to opportunities

Darrell L. Armstrong
The Rev. Darrell L. Armstrong

The fight for fairness and inclusion in our state has come to some of New Jersey’s wealthiest communities.

Judge Mary C. Jacobson is in the midst of a multi-month trial in Trenton that will determine whether thousands of homes are built for working families, seniors, and those with disabilities in suburban Mercer County towns.

While suburban towns have an obligation under the New Jersey Constitution to provide fair-housing options within their borders, some of our state’s wealthiest municipalities — from Hopewell to West Windsor to Princeton — have failed to follow the law.

Rather than building inclusive communities, they have perpetuated longstanding practices that lock out families of color from access to opportunities. These policies are undergirded by systemic and structural racism that has made New Jersey one of the most segregated states in the country.

By promoting policies that exclude working families from wealthier suburban communities, they are excluding tens of thousands of people from safe neighborhoods, good schools, and access to jobs.

The results of this trial will have an effect far beyond Central Jersey by setting the tone for ongoing legal proceedings affecting hundreds of towns. This is the first countywide fair housing trial that is expected to be seen to its conclusion — unlike an earlier trial in Ocean County that ended in settlements.

As Robert Wood Johnson's famous 2015 study on life expectancy in urban and suburban communities illustrated, ZIP code is a major determinant of destiny in the United States.

The 13 miles that separate the teenager growing up in Trenton from the teenager growing up in Princeton mean a world of difference.

A child in Trenton must contend with troubled schools, entrenched and concentrated poverty, the specter of gang and gun violence, and the overwhelming prevalence of mind-altering drugs and other illicit narcotics; this is not true nor the same for a child growing-up in Mercer County's suburban communities. A student attending high school in Princeton, for instance, can enroll in classes including AP art history and multivariable calculus at one of the state’s top public high schools. These early opportunities determine future access to jobs and higher educational opportunities.

After 16 years of gridlock in the State House that kept our fair-housing laws from being properly enforced, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2015 designed to get our housing process back on track by turning over enforcement to the state’s trial courts.

This process is already producing results, allowing us to finally tackle these yawning disparities.

More than 100 towns across the state have already reached settlements with civil rights advocates totaling obligations of more than 32,000 homes. Construction has begun in some of these towns, and many of these homes will ultimately be built by local nonprofit organizations with deep understanding of local housing needs.

Several Mercer County communities have reached agreements with housing advocates to permit the construction of hundreds of new homes for New Jersey families. Ewing has agreed to a fair-housing obligation of 341 homes; Hamilton has agreed to meet an obligation of 521 homes, and Robbinsville has agreed to a 638-unit obligation.

Yet despite this progress, other municipalities are pursuing a strategy of resistance that is both morally bankrupt and relies on a deeply flawed understanding of New Jersey’s housing market. 

While Hopewell Township officials successfully convinced Capital Health hospital system several years ago to relocate thousands of jobs to a new medical center outside of Trenton, they are now working to residentially exclude the hundreds of medical technicians, nurse assistants, and janitors who work at the new hospital. 

Hopewell is very happy to inflict economic damage on one of our state’s poorest cities as long as it can keep service-sector employees from moving into safe neighborhoods near where they work and from sending their children to the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, one of the wealthiest in the state.

At the same time, nearby Princeton is turning its back on a distinguished track record of promoting racial and socioeconomic integration. Princeton officials — like their counterparts in Hopewell, West Windsor, and East Windsor — are relying on a deeply flawed housing study being pushed by towns seeking to artificially lower their housing obligations.

Not only are these towns outside the mainstream, but also they are knowingly or unknowingly propagating what the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as "the two Americas," one rich and one poor.

The study, prepared by Philadelphia-based Econsult Solutions, relies on shoddy math and false assumptions. It argues that half-million-dollar McMansions with pools and hot tubs are somehow “affordable” for New Jersey’s working families.

This report was entirely rejected by Judge Douglas K. Wolfson in a trial in nearby Middlesex County last summer. Judge Wolfson found that the report “seems to reflect a pattern of ‘result oriented’ design.”

Judge Jacobson should also reject this report and finally hold these towns accountable.

After more than 15 years of struggle, we are poised to finally make our constitution’s guarantees of fair housing a reality.

No municipality, however wealthy, can be permitted to violate our constitution or impede its full, fair, and just implementation!

The Rev. Darrell L. Armstrong, M.Div., Ed.S., is pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton and a representative to the United Nations from the Baptist World Alliance.

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