New Jersey’s so-called “affordable housing policies” require each municipality in the state to provide its “fair share” of low and moderate income housing. This could be accomplished is a number of ways, but usually involved zoning for low and moderate income housing that requires builders to incorporate some percentage of such housing (usually subsidized) in their development plans.
But it can also allow municipalities to finance affordable housing in other communities in lieu of allowing building it in their towns. That practice, known as “Regional Contribution Agreements,” were subsequently outlawed. But with a recent court ruling increasing affordable housing requirements for towns, many mayors are seeking a reinstatement of Regional Contribution Agreements.
Some object. In Don't let N.J.'s wealthy suburbs block out black and Latino families, Star-Ledger Guest Columnists Richard T. Smith and Christian Estevez write:
We are deeply troubled by recent demands from mayors of wealthy towns for the reinstatement of Regional Contribution Agreements — New Jersey's modern-day version of red lining.
Before their abolition, these agreements allowed a few wealthy, overwhelmingly white towns, to avoid building their fair share of homes affordable to working families, seniors and those with disabilities. Instead, they used the funds to pay for repairs — many of them minor — to existing homes in poor urban communities. This allowed wealthy towns to avoid allowing 10,000 families to seek opportunities closer to jobs and schools and diverted $200 million away from the production of new homes for New Jersey families.
RCAs further concentrated poverty and reinforced longstanding patterns of racial and economic segregation, preventing poorer families — especially Latinos and people of color — from moving to thriving suburban communities with good schools and growing employment opportunities.
There’s truth to this. Unfortunately, Smith and Estevez go on to muddle their argument with statements on economic “gaps” and promotion of destructive policies like minimum wage increases. Worse, they avoid the basic problem: How is it right that towns even have the power to “avoid allowing 10,000 families to seek opportunities closer to jobs and schools?”
Before we tackle that question, let me say this.
The premise of this article is to categorize people according to race or economic status. That’s a horrible way to think of individuals. People shouldn’t be judged according to whom they happen to share their skin color or income with. But that’s exactly the implication behind talk of “gaps” among groups. What does this implication say about the many successful black and Latino individuals?—that their success doesn’t somehow measure up to whites because of some arbitrary group economic gap?
Worse, the constant talk of gaps among groups encourages people to measure their self-worth by comparison to others rather than their own character and results. This is psychologically and characterologically unhealthy, because such OCD (Obsessive Comparison Disorder) has the person constantly looking over their shoulder at the next guy, robbing him of rightful pride in his own accomplishments. My father once told me, “Don’t worry about what somebody else is making. Just worry about yourself.” It’s great advice. The whole collectivist focus on meaningless group gaps is degrading to actual individual human beings, their efforts, and their self-esteem.
That said, Smith and Estevez do have a point. Unfortunately, their solution is a different version of the original disease—government-imposed social engineering. That original disease is zoning. While overt legalized segregation ended decades ago, it is still being snuck in through the back door of zoning (although I believe that the segregation is primarily economic, not racial). Zoning, not prejudice, is the real problem. The power to control land use is a backdoor gateway to legalized segregation, which is more properly thought of as social engineering.
If we look back at the original Mount Laurel case, the fundamental problem can be clearly seen. When Jacob’s Chapel sought to build 36 garden apartments on its own property in Mount Laurel, which would have brought housing affordable to low income folks to the area, it was blocked by the township. The state Supreme Court, however, dropped the ball; it imposed housing quotas, unleashing decades of politically-charged housing conflict. If the court had simply overturned the zoning powers that enable such wanton discrimination, the housing market would have been largely freed up. Put another way, if the court had just affirmed private property rights, the Jacobs apartments would have gotten built, and that would have been that. No more would some mayor have been able to callously tell some future housing planner, as Mount Laurel Mayor Bill Haynes said to the African-American Jacobs congregation, “If you people can’t afford to live in our town, then you’ll just have to leave.”
Where people choose to live should be a matter of individual choice based on voluntary contractual agreements among landowners, builders, and consumers. No one should be able to use the state’s power of law—i.e., the power of the gun—as a means to engage in social engineering, whether based on race, economics, social status, or any other arbitrary criteria. This goes equally for utopian-minded activist groups seeking to impose housing quotas on local communities through state “fair housing” laws, and local community masterminds seeking to impose their idea of community character through powerful zoning boards.
Municipalities have no moral obligation to provide fair housing opportunities. Neither does the state. They simply have to get out of the way. To borrow a Clinton catchphrase, “It’s the zoning, stupid!”
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