Skip to content
Topics
Stories

Affordable housing in an American suburb

Families who moved to an afford­able housing com­plex in New Jersey were more likely to be healthier, wealthier, and more highly edu­cated than those who chose to live else­where, according to urban soci­ol­o­gist Len Albright.

His find­ings are the sub­ject of his new book Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Afford­able Housing and Social Mobility in an Amer­ican Suburb, which was coau­thored by a group of researchers and housing consultants.

“Like clean water and high quality food,” said Albright, an assis­tant pro­fessor of soci­ology and public policy at North­eastern, “housing is a key resource that keeps people healthy and enables them to be eco­nom­i­cally mobile and self-​​sufficient.”

The book—the spoils of Albright’s work as a research asso­ciate at Princeton University—grew into a large-​​scale eval­u­a­tion of the Ethel Lawrence Homes, a 140-​​unit apart­ment com­plex in New Jersey’s Mount Laurel Township.

Com­pleted some 13 years ago, the devel­op­ment stems from a series of New Jersey Supreme Court cases known as the “Mount Laurel deci­sions,” which obliges towns to pro­vide low-​​and moderate-​​income housing. Ethel Lawrence, the lead plain­tiff and development’s name­sake, has since become known as the “Rosa Parks of afford­able housing.”

Albright, who grew up in Mount Laurel, took a two-​​pronged approach to eval­u­ating the development’s social, polit­ical, and eco­nomic effi­cacy. First he sur­veyed hun­dreds of Ethel Lawrence res­i­dents as well as those who applied to move into the com­plex but ended up living else­where. Ques­tions ranged from how often the respon­dents cried to their blood pres­sure levels.

The find­ings showed that people who moved into the com­plex lived higher quality lives. Adults expe­ri­enced less stress and anx­iety, for example, and their chil­dren studied more and earned better grades in school.

Albright also eval­u­ated the development’s effect on the com­mu­nity at large, com­paring prop­erty values, crime sta­tis­tics, and tax rates in Mount Laurel with those of the sur­rounding towns. The find­ings revealed no sig­nif­i­cant difference.

According to Albright, the fear of crime expressed by neigh­bors when the housing com­plex was being built in the 1990s did not come to pass more than a decade later. In fact, he said, “Most of the res­i­dents had no clue that there was even low-​​income housing in their town.”

Nonethe­less, the court deci­sions remain con­tro­ver­sial. Gov­ernor Chris Christie of New Jersey has called the Mount Laurel doc­trine an “abom­i­na­tion” and wants the policy overturned.

Albright explained the governor’s line of thinking. “It’s hard for some people who don’t make a ton of money but also don’t qualify for sub­si­dized housing,” he said. “Why should the gov­ern­ment take my money and sub­si­dize someone’s nice place?”

The answer may lie in the per­sonal and pro­fes­sional suc­cess of the development’s res­i­dents, the topic of Albright’s next book. Each chapter, he said, will focus on one family’s journey. “You can really learn about dis­parity in the U.S. and social strat­i­fi­ca­tion by hearing people’s sto­ries,” he said.

— By Jason Kornwitz

More Stories

Racial justice protests were not a major cause of COVID-19 infection surges, new national study finds

08.11.2020

Here’s what could happen if the U.S. suspends federal pandemic unemployment benefits

08.10.2020

Black women asked their party for what they wanted. What happens next?

08.13.20
In the News