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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

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