Housing Development Arguments in “Climbing Mt. Laurel”

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Douglas S. Massey et. al. describe in Climbing Mount Laurel the ways in which the market for housing in the United States, more specifically New Jersey, is not free and fair. Zoning laws and real estate agent interests have made housing markets inaccessible to some, especially racial minorities and lower class families.

Solutions to these sorts of problems do not come easy, and lower income housing developments are contentious due to the many stakes involved. Real estate agents and homeowners have a stake in the value of housing, and inviting low income housing to the neighborhood is generally seen as a risk to be avoided. There is also the fear that with poverty comes crime and other problems less prevalent in wealthy areas, not to mention fears of higher tax burdens, sagging schools, and the like. These sentiments are often fueled by xenophobia. Of course, in the case of Mt. Laurel, the potential residents of such housing aren’t all strangers moving into the community, many are families who have either been forced out or are at risk of losing their housing in Mt. Laurel.

It is no surprise that there was quite a lot of backlash, disagreement, and dragging of feet in the wake of Mt. Laurel II. While the most evident misgivings about developing low-income housing are self interested or bigoted, many are more complicated than this. Effectively integrating low-income residents into an established suburban community is a difficult task, even without the stumbling blocks that the city puts in place. A Mt. Laurel resident posed the argument that integrating low income residents into suburban communities isn’t as beneficial as it seems, because the location and structure of the neighborhood practically requires a car, an expense potential residents might not be able to afford (44).

Others doubt the effectiveness of creating deliberate, low-income developments. For one, potential residents might not appreciate the stigma attached to living in such a development (45). Second, some question that such a development would be effective at integrating low-income residents into a wealthier community (44). Massey engages the idea that in the past, people on all political sides agreed that housing developments created for low-income citizens perpetuated cycles of poverty and did little to combat discrimination (23). Many worry that the results of Mt. Laurel could lead to similarly dismal results.

The property value argument pushed by realtors and homeowners has deeper implications, too. While realtors are worried about the wealthy neighborhoods becoming stigmatized due to poor developments, the stigma could be just as harmful to the residents of the new development. If a community such as Mt. Laurel experienced a severe case of “white flight,” some argue that the poor members of the community would be left in an even worse place – in an empty shell of a residential suburb (47).

While many of the arguments against Mt. Laurel are easily dismissed, several articulate many of the challenges that must be faced in tackling problems of social stratification and segregation.