New Jersey is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the country — but it is also one of the most segregated. The reasons are complicated: former redlining of communities that haven’t changed their demographics since the middle of the 20th century; pockets of wealthy white families settling in the same tony communities; and a state housing policy that despite judicial intervention has stagnated and done little to address the issue.
Just look at the numbers: 20 percent of New Jersey towns are at least 90 percent white; three-quarters of residents in 60 percent of municipalities are white. But only 56 percent of New Jersey's nearly 9 million residents were white in 2015, while 20 percent were Hispanic; 13 percent, black; and 9 percent, Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
"New Jersey is one of the most racially segregated states in the country," said Richard Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.
Smith was one of a half-dozen civil rights and housing activists who spoke on Wednesday following a state Supreme Court hearing on an affordable housing issue that could lead to municipalities zoning for an additional 100,000 units for low- and moderate-income residents over the next decade.
He said it has been 41 years since the court issued its first inclusionary housing decision, yet "too much remains the same." The Mount Laurel Doctrine, so called because the first cases were brought against the township by the Southern Burlington branch of the NAACP, requires municipalities to adopt zoning for their "fair share" of the need for affordable housing within their region of the state.
Smith called the state's affordable housing requirements "one of our most important tools to ensure New Jersey families, regardless of race, have the same opportunities."
"For too long, minority communities in New Jersey have been shut out of our state's many thriving suburban communities," added Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network. "Tens of thousands of New Jerseyans have been waiting more than 16 years to move into homes in safe neighborhoods with safe school districts."
The groups filed a joint friend of the court brief in the case that was the subject of the hearing. They are asking the justices to require municipalities to provide for the housing need that accrued during the period between 1999 and 2015 when the state had no affordable housing regulations in place.
In their brief, the NAACP and LAN said that the Mount Laurel doctrine has helped some communities become more open and diverse, but "the pattern of racial segregation and the isolation of minority communities into 'urban ghettoes' … nonetheless persists, perpetuated by the continuing reality of exclusionary zoning."
An analysis of census data shows that the state's hispanic, black, and Asian populations are, for the most part, concentrated in urban North Jersey, parts of Somerset and Middlesex counties, and South Jersey cities. Non-Hispanic whites predominate in the Northwest, the Northern Jersey Shore and in Burlington County.
All of New Jersey's five wealthiest municipalities were at least three quarters non-Hispanic white and more than nine in 10 residents were white in two of those — Essex Fells and North Caldwell, both in Essex County.
Less than 15 miles away from both is Newark. With the 12th-lowest median household income as measured by the 2014 American Community Survey, Newark's minority population is the 10th largest in the state — 51 percent black and 35 percent Hispanic. Little more than one in 10 residents of the state's largest city are white.
The proportion of any two races or ethnicities is close — within 10 percentage points — in fewer than 60 municipalities across New Jersey. Among the diverse communities are Red Bank in Monmouth County, which is about 55 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and 16 percent black, and Rahway in Union County, which is 36 percent white, 32 percent black, and more than a quarter Hispanic.
Several studies have noted wide segregation patterns in New Jersey.
Together North Jersey's 2015found "significant levels of segregation for Black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander populations." Using a scientific measure called the dissimilarity index, it found that 55 percent of whites would have to move to other neighborhoods in order for the North Jersey region to be considered racially and ethnically balanced.
And in thefrom UCLA's Civil Rights Project, which looked at the "most severely segregated" schools, the authors stated: "We have consistently found New York and Illinois to be at or very near the top of the list, often with Michigan and New Jersey close behind." In New Jersey, more than 49 percent of black students and 43 percent of Hispanics in 2013-2014 were attending schools that were at least 90 percent nonwhite.
Although the Mount Laurel Doctrine has focused on inclusion based on economic, rather than racial, grounds, it has nonetheless helped diversify communities and blacks and Hispanics, according to the NAACP and LAN.
"Where the Mount Laurel mandate has been implemented … it has reduced racial segregation and produced marked improvements in the lives of residents, many of whom are African American and Latino, who have the opportunity to move from blighted areas to live in communities of opportunity," the groups' brief states. On the other hand, "in part because of the inconsistent and incomplete implementation of the Mount Laurel mandate, housing segregation remains a critical issue in New Jersey today."
With the advocates arguing for higher affordable-housing obligations for many towns across the state, at least two lawmakers weighed in and called for action by the Legislature — largely silent on this issue for the past several years despite a dramatic Supreme Court ruling 21 months ago that urged it to weigh in on the matter.
“Towns are rightly concerned that if affordable-housing policy is left to the courts in this instance, they will be forced to allow massive new developments that are unnecessary, expensive to property taxpayers, and disruptive to their communities,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) and cosponsor of a bill that seeks to prevent the gap period's housing need from being used to calculate current municipal obligations. "With the potential harm so clear, the Legislature needs to act and not leave affordable-housing policy to the whims of an activist court.”
Still, 83 municipalities — including Mount Laurel — have agreed to zone for nearly 30,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years. Some of these are for developments the towns will help fund; construction on the first ones could begin as early as next year.