Decades After Mount Laurel Decision, New Jersey's Housing Affordability Crisis Continues To Deepen

May 11, 2018

Credit Bob Hennelly

Over forty years ago the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision was hailed nationally. It proclaimed it was unconstitutional for local zoning to exclude housing for its poor and working class. Yet, decades later New Jersey is in a full blown affordable housing crisis and leads the nation in foreclosures. And despite the scarcity of affordable housing there are tens of thousands of vacant homes just wasting away. 

Back in January of 2015 attorney Kevin Walsh, with the advocacy group Fair Share Housing, was before New Jersey’s highest court making the case it was time for the courts to step back in because their Mount Laurel decision that declared the state had to make room for housing the poor and working class had been ignored. He described how Governor Christie had hollowed out the Council on Affordable Housing that was created by the legislature to implement the court’s landmark 1975 ruling.

“Its 15 years in which the rights that Mount Laurel recognized have gone unenforced with real human consequences so we come to the court and say please do what you promised to do.” Kevin Walsh told the justices.  

MT LAUREL SAD LEGACY-ONE COUPLE’S HARD WINTER 

Kellee Patterson & Timothy Johnson
Credit Bob Hennelly / WBGO

Kelee Patterson and her boyfriend Tim Johnson know all too well about the human consequences of New Jersey’s failure to live up to Mount Laurel’s forty-three-year-old mandate. They spent this winter living in Patterson’s car with her three dogs. Almost six years after Sandy hit this part of Monmouth County along the Route 38 corridor finding affordable housing is impossible

“In the front seat we put the little dog on the floor on where I drive,” Patterson explained. “The driver seat has two little dogs. On the seat there is one dog, and on the floor, there is one little dog.  Than the big dog is on the passenger seat with the seat laid down. Than we cuddle up in the back. We make that in with blankets and pillows. All our clothes are in the back.”

Patterson tried to remain positive about the couple’s prospects and a pending job interview later that day. “I would love to be in my own home to wake up and brush my teeth, shower and go to work, cause right now we go to Target, Quick-Check bathrooms to get ready to an interview, and thank god we have an interview. I hope we get these jobs.  Get these jobs and save money and get to a state where the cost of living isn’t so high and move there,” Johnson added.

Inside MJ’s Pizza in Middletown over a late lunch, Patterson and Johnson explain how it came to be that two college graduates in their early 30s ended up homeless and battling addiction issues. Patterson recounted the story of her mother’s home in Middletown that the family lost in foreclosure

“My mom has lived there for 18 years and so have I,” she said. “I went to college twice and got two degrees; nursing and health science, got my two degrees. Came home. I moved out on my own several times, but I always came back to mom’s when the relationship did not work out or the drug addiction got too bad and I could not pay my rent. My mom is a single mom and been a hard worker her whole life.”

For Johnson, his life was upended when his father came down with pancreatic cancer and in just a few months died. His mother fell behind on the mortgage payments. 

“I had a similar story with foreclosure too my mother was foreclosed in 2002,” he said. “When my father passed away our house was foreclosed. She had to sell it before it was foreclosed.”

Johnson’s mom’s home in Middletown is still listed as vacant. It is one of close to 40,000 empty homes throughout New Jersey.  In places like Newark and Atlantic City the crisis is so acute vacant homes threaten public safety and depress property values.  Activists are pushing for a moratorium on foreclosures which can leave families homeless and their homes vacant.

BATTLING FORECLOSURE-FIGHTING FOR YOUR HOME

Community activists with the Hearing of Citizens Coalition of NJ have been holding regular meetings in East Orange City Hall in support of the moratorium.

Essex County Assemblywoman Brittnee Timberlake is one of the bill’s sponsors. “Foreclosures, looking at it from a financial perspective—they are bringing down property values. The homes often become vacant and abandoned and then they attract crime,” she said. “Looking at it from the most important perspective is that it’s displacing people and people are being pushed out of their homes and I don’t understand why a bank would not do all that they could possibly do to keep someone in their home by offering different modifications if someone becomes distressed. 

Carolyn Bailey, know on line as the “hurting homeowner” has been working with the Citizens Coalition. She has been fighting to hold on to her Cliff Street home in Newark. “My husband bought the house,” she said. “My children were raised there so it home. That is the connection. I have been there now over twenty-five years.” 

Bailey sees what’s happened in New Jersey’s poorer neighborhoods is a manifestation of systemic racism continuing to play out. “So, the urban area has been cratered out. the zombie houses are everywhere,” said Bailey. She has been fighting her foreclosure pro se in the courts since 2006. She says for many African-American homeowners their current foreclosure problems were the consequence of underlying predatory lending practices that go back decades.

“There was red lining long before there was the Great Recession,” she said. “And so, in the urban communities if you managed to get a house you paid a higher price. You paid a higher percentage on the mortgage. You got terms from the beginning from the closing where you were being gouged. So, you started out behind the eight ball and you never really caught up. So, this took us over the edge and has left us just swimming out in the ocean.  But we will survive. We are a people that have survived.

Last November at WBGO’s Newark Today live broadcast, homeowners turned out to publicly share their personal foreclosure experiences.

”What about the homeowners that is in the house fighting foreclosure and every door is closed in their face?” asked one stressed resident. “Is there any relief even on the way or are we indefinitely at the whim of whatever happens?” asked another.  “If I invest 25 years of taxes and good service to the city shouldn’t the city have some kind of help when there is a struggle and you can’t make the mortgage anymore and you have just three years to go?” asked a veteran city employee.

Raymond Ocasio, the Executive Director La Casa De Don Pedro, told the WBGO Newark Today audience that the key to addressing the state’s housing affordability crisis was to preserve the existing housing stock, as if the state’s future depended on it.  “There has to be a program that support the preservation and renovation of existing properties,” he said.  “Otherwise, we will be in a hole we will never be able to dig out of.”

START WHERE YOU LIVE

One place people are paying attention and taking action is in the historic Forest Hill section of Newark, east of Branch Brook Park. One winter night  members of the neighborhood association held their monthly meeting around a dining room table of a member. This section of the city has 1,200 homes that includes vintage Victorians that have several bedrooms and grand common spaces that harken back to another era.  

Association member Catherine Longendyck has lived in Newark her whole life. “Our Forest Hill Community Association is really focused on monitoring the historic designation, number one, and number two, keeping the homeowners, to the extent we can, help them maintain their homes properly so that we will keep our property use up and attract new homeowners,” she explained.

In this neighborhood, residents are committed to not letting any home deteriorate if they can help it. Charles Bell has focused on the vacant homes.  “It’s probably five or six years ago that someone, who is no longer in the neighborhood, took it upon herself, she was a great walker, and she would just see the homes we are still talking  about  and she got a bunch of us to volunteer sand everybody adopted a house and we had a cleanup Saturday because we did not want the houses to look vacant,” he said. “The turnout was phenomenal. Everybody brought their tools and bags and raked.” 

Housing preservation is key experts say because the replacement value of New Jersey tens of thousands of at risk residential structures is just too high. And, as the Forest Hill residents know firsthand, stabilizing the housing stock keeps property values on the upswing and neighborhoods intact.

A CRISIS LARGELY IGNORED

Since 2010 Northern New Jersey’s United Way in Morris County the non-profit has been tracking the explosion in the number of New Jersey families confronting the scarcity of affordable and safe housing. Dr. Stephanie Hoopes is the director of the United Way’s ALICE project. So, who is ALICE?

“ALICE is someone that we all know,” Hoopes said. “Some us have been ALICE, ALICE stands for asset limited, income constrained, employed. So, people working low wage jobs with little or no savings and are struggling to work in parts of our communities and support their families in that same area. Housing is usually the most expensive item in ALICE’s budget. Forty percent of New Jersey households are ALICE, so they are all struggling to afford their housing.” 

Hoopes says that for the ALICE population spending forty to fifty percent of their income on housing is not uncommon and that huge bite taken out for shelter has all sorts of real world consequences. “If you spend too much on housing than you might not have enough for childcare and your children go to substandard childcare or their older sibling watches the younger sibling,” she said. “There are some health and safety issues there as well as well as school readiness.

The United Way estimates that just before the Great Recession there were 913,400 ALICE households, struggling to pay for housing. Today, that number is closer to 1.2 million. 

Editorial and production assistance from Molly Fichter