Mount Laurel Decision

Mount Laurel Decision

The Mount Laurel Decision is a judicial interpretation of the New Jersey State Constitution that requires municipalities to use their zoning powers in an affirmative manner to provide a realistic opportunity for the production of housing affordable to low and moderate income households. The decision was a result of a lawsuit brought against the town by the N.A.A.C.P. that was decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975 and reaffirmed in a subsequent decision in 1983.

The history behind this, and the story leading to the Decision was highlighted in a book by David L. Kirp called Our Town.]

Mount Laurel was a small, poor rural farming community until it was hit with massive suburban growth from Philadelphia in the later 1900s. Poor families, whose history had resided there for centuries, were suddenly priced out of buying additional property. The massive rise in property values gave such families a windfall profit. In 1970, at a meeting about a proposal for affordable housing, held at an all black church in Mount Laurel, Mayor Bill Haines summed up the newcomers perspectives by saying “If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave.”

Even though the poor black families in Mount Laurel were not from urban ghettos, and were not involved in gang activity, the new suburban influx thought otherwise, and significantly delayed the creation of affordable housing, citing concerns of gang activity and an influx of inner city criminals. Exampled comments from town meetings against being forced to build housing projects in their town included “we need this like Custer needed more Indians”; “it’s reverse discrimination”; “we lived in this in South Philly and Newark” they said, and that the housing would be a “breeding ground for violent crime and drug abuse”.

Resident advocates of the housing were treated with abuse and threats. Leading advocate Ethel Lawrence, a poor black resident who lived her life in Mount Laurel, had her house repeatedly vandalized, and once her bedroom window was shot at. Longtime white residents also turned to try to force the poor blacks out of town. Although the court ruled in favor of creating affordable housing, residents did manage to delay the process for decades.