Understanding the Link Between Affordable Housing and Structural Racism
Creating inclusive communities requires more than fair housing laws. We need enforcement to end residential segregation and the disinvestment that shortchanges so many communities of color.
To this day, I still choke up when I remember the moment, two decades ago, that changed my life. As part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, I had volunteered to help feed some folks who were homeless. At the end of the afternoon, I turned to one of the women who ran the sponsoring program, and said, “That was great, I look forward to doing this again next year.”
She paused, looked directly at me, and said quietly, “We do this every week.”
In those words, I suddenly heard a calling. My Dad was a church pastor and I had always expected to follow his path. But now I wondered, “Am I going to preach about this, or am I going to actually do it?” And so I signed up to work among people who were living mostly on the streets. Some struggled with mental illness or substance use, others had been forced from family homes because of their sexual identities. All were poor and most were Black or Brown. I learned to listen, not judge, and to think more broadly about how poverty and race intersect.
Black and Brown Skins Don’t Ruin a Neighborhood
At Fair Share Housing Center, my faith, my passion for people, and my commitment to social justice are intertwined. Our broadest goal is to break down the structural racism that has existed since this country was founded. Housing is our entry point because zoning, land use, and housing policy are tools that governments at the federal, state, and local levels have long used to create a white middle class and disinvest in neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color. If we are to create opportunities for everyone to live where they choose, we have to confront the legal, policy, and practice structures that sustain patterns of residential segregation and its damaging health consequences.
New Jersey has a one-of-a-kind mechanism by which to do this. The Mount Laurel doctrine, a series of watershed rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court beginning in 1975, requires every municipality in the state to take deliberate steps to provide affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. The court said New Jersey’s constitution did not permit state or local land use policies that discriminate against individuals based on income. I can’t overstate the importance of this decision—the original plaintiff, Ethel Lawrence, has been called “the Rosa Parks of housing” and the case is often compared to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal school segregation. No other state has such sweeping requirements.
And yet the struggle for affordable housing in New Jersey, ironically one of the most segregated states in the nation, continues. Fair Share was founded specifically to safeguard and advance the Mount Laurel doctrine because we know that fair housing laws alone are not enough; those laws also need to be enforced. That means we spend a lot of time litigating noncompliant municipalities. In 2015—forty years after the first Mount Laurel decision—we won a major court battle that required towns to redress long periods when they failed to meet their fair share obligations. As a result, approximately 50,000 more affordable housing units are currently being built.
Let’s be honest about the racist narratives that policymakers use to defy requirements to house people without deep pockets. When folks hear that affordable housing is coming, they immediately assume that low-income Black and Brown people without jobs will move into their neighborhoods and rising crime and falling property values will quickly follow. None of that is true, as a study of one of the first developments to follow the Mount Laurel ruling demonstrated. In thriving, racially integrated New Jersey communities like South Orange, Maplewood, and Pennsauken, health, well-being and economic opportunities improve for everyone, regardless of race or class.
But until we reframe prevailing narratives about what it means to have Black or Brown skin in this country, we will continue facing an uphill battle to create inclusive communities throughout New Jersey.
Housing by Choice
Fair Share champions housing as a human right. Erecting a framework that guarantees housing for all allows us to reimagine what is possible and pursue it vigorously.
We talk a lot about giving people options and opportunities. Yes, we believe that affordable housing should be available in high-opportunity communities, but we are pushing equally for investments in neighborhoods that have been historically starved of resources. Displacement, not gentrification, is our concern—we want more investments to cultivate assets in communities of color, but those investments must improve the lives of long-term residents, not drive them out.
A universe of strategies is needed to galvanize action on affordable housing. We put muscle into advocating for the Fair Chance in Housing Act, which limits the use of criminal background checks by landlords and was signed into state law on Juneteenth, 2021. No other state has a statute as strong ours, although we need vigilance to ensure it is fully enforced. We are also committed to preserving and maintaining existing affordable housing, supporting first-generation homeowners, advocating for stronger enforcement against housing discrimination, pushing for eviction protections, and ensuring that disaster relief funds are distributed equitably.
Becoming Part of the Solution
Our experiences offer many lessons. One is that every community is unique, which means we have to understand the distinctive assets, institutions, history, and priorities of any place we work. We have also learned to be persistent, recognizing that the pursuit of justice never ends; we can’t walk away after a win and say our work is done.
Collaborative action is the core ingredient of Fair Share’s power. We knit together coalitions because we know that a collective voice is much stronger than a lone one. Together, advocates and agitators, faith leaders and civil rights activists, and many other stakeholders become a force for legislative and policy prescriptions that cannot go unfilled.
To our allies wondering how to become part of changing the narrative, I say get involved in local issues that impact housing. What do you want in a neighborhood and what land use policies will allow its amenities to be more broadly shared? Is your community doing enough to attract housing that lower-income people can afford? Learn how Fair Share, our partners in the United Black Agenda, and the New Jersey Governor’s Wealth Disparity Task Force are building equity. Support our efforts and connect with stakeholders in your own regions who are trying to open doors.
Understand, too, the larger context in which we do our work. This country was built on the backs of enslaved labor, yet our founding documents declare that all men are created equal. A lot of us believe passionately in an even broader message of equity and we are fighting to realize it. Affordable housing is an engine to win that struggle.
Learn more about how where you live impacts your health.
About the Author
Rev. Eric Dobson is Fair Share Housing Center’s Deputy Director. He joined Fair Share Housing Center as an ordained minister, a community organizer, outreach specialist, and social entrepreneur. He holds a BA from Temple University in Religion and has extensive experience working with diverse audiences and communities, specializing in interfaith outreach.