Magazine article Poverty & Race

Lessons from Mount Laurel: The Benefits of Affordable Housing for All Concerned

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Lessons from Mount Laurel: The Benefits of Affordable Housing for All Concerned

Article excerpt

In 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the case of South Burlington County NAACP v. Mount Laurel Towns hip. Commonly known as Mount Laurel ?, the ruling held that all municipalities in New Jersey had an affirmative obligation, under the state constitution, to house their fair share of affordable housing in the region. The decision effectively forbade the use of zoning to prevent the construction of affordable housing units in affluent suburban communities.

Although the township and litigants entered into a consent decree in 1985, the affordable development, which came to be known as Ethel Lawrence Homes (ELH), did not open its doors until late 2000, when 100 affordable units were allocated to low- and moderate-income families on a first-come, first-served basis. Another 40 units were completed and filled in the same way in 2004.

In 2009-2010, 1 joined with a team of colleagues to undertake a systematic evaluation of the effect that ELH had on the township and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as on the lives of the people who were able to take advantage of access to affordable housing in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. Both evaluations followed a quasi-experimental design.

To assess the effect of ELH on the township itself, we undertook a multiple time series study that compared trends in home values, tax burdens and crime rates in Mount Laurel before and after 2001, with trends in a matched set of nearby townships before and after the same date. Performing a statistical analysis of "differences in differences" before and after the opening of ELH, we found no detectable effects of the project's opening on any outcome. Trends in home values, crime rates and taxes were the same in Mount Laurel as in similar townships nearby.

Even in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the project, we found no effect of ELH on crime, property values or taxes. Indeed, in a survey we conducted among neighbors, onethird didn't know affordable housing even existed in the neighborhood, and among those who did know, only 40% could successfully name the project. Despite dire predictions and outsized fears expressed before the fact, when ELH finally opened, it was not with a bang, but a whimper.

The manner by which units in ELH were allocated to tenants also afforded a quasi-experimental research design. After a period of regional advertising, aspiring tenants were instructed to come into the developer's office to complete and hand in an application form. All applications received during the application period were placed on a list and assigned a sequence number indicating the order in which they were submitted. The applications were then evaluated in order received, and if they met income and other eligibility criteria determined from the form, they were offered a unit in the development.

Applicants still on the waiting list at the time of our study constitute a good comparison group with which to assess the effects of ELH residence. Since applicants admitted and still waiting were both self-selected into the population of people wishing to take advantage of affordable housing, selection bias is effectively controlled. We therefore interviewed all project residents along with a sample selected from the waiting list. In order to further ensure comparability between the two groups, we coded up all of the information on the application form and from it estimated equations predicting the likelihood of being offered a unit. …

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