At this time of year, it’s worthwhile to think of how we can maintain the legacy of Martin Luther King by challenging segregation in Princeton and our local area. Sadly, despite past work and progress, we still live in a very segregated society. According to one recent analysis, the Trenton metro area – which includes Princeton and all of Mercer County – ranks #2 in terms of the most economically segregated areas in the entire United States. That is a terrible statistic, and it is no secret that traditionally disenfranchised communities like the African-American community fare the worst from unequal systems. Fortunately, recent research gives us a good indication as to what we can do to make things better.
Work from Princeton University’s Douglas Massey has shown that families can achieve much greater economic and educational outcomes by moving to communities with good job opportunities and stable schools. Despite widespread fears of suburban residents, Dr Massey’s research shows that relocation to communities of opportunity does not cause negative outcomes in those communities. Promoting this kind of mobility, where people can move to places where they can earn more and provide better opportunities for their kids, is therefore a key way to break historical patterns of disadvantage. But what is standing in the way of this mobility in Mercer County, which might account for our high level of economic segregation?
A recent study from a research team at UCLA* examined factors that contribute to income inequality. They found 4 key factors that are most linked to income inequality:
- Density restrictions (promote inequality);
- More difficult building approval processes (promote inequality);
- More fragmented local governments (promote inequality);
- State-level involvement in land use planning (can reduce inequality).
Consider how these factors apply to Princeton and the local area: first, we know that housing density restrictions are very strong (and popular) in Princeton. This makes it less likely that new housing will be built, and that any housing that does get built will be expensive. Access to Princeton’s high-achievement school system is therefore mostly restricted to high-earning families, who can afford more-expensive homes. Intended or not, this system leads to a clear racial disparity, because for historical reasons, black and Latino families are less likely to be able to afford a home in an expensive school district. Rutgers University researchers compared this to apartheid in a report published in 2013.
Second, building approvals are complicated in Princeton, and especially complicated for multi-family developments that are favored by low-income households. Applications are typically reviewed by the Environmental Commission, the Site Plan Review Advisory Board, and the Planning Board. Permits may also be required from state agencies such as the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association or the Department of Environmental Protection. Princeton also has an active Historic Preservation Commission, with an ever-expanding role in regulating building. This type of complex review process, with opportunities for public dissent and opposition at every stage, is recognized by the UCLA team as a driver of inequality, because it tends to make it harder for housing to be built in communities of opportunity.
When it comes to fragmented local government – another contributor to inequality – New Jersey is unsurpassed. We have more local governments per square mile than any other state. In many cases, these local governments were formed specifically to try to monopolize resources for a privileged demographic, so it’s no surprise that New Jersey’s hyper-local councils are still trying to restrict opportunities for housing on their turf. Other states have far fewer planning authorities, and in some places, planning takes place primarily at the state level instead of in local towns.
Finally, local control of planning in New Jersey is limited by the Mount Laurel rulings, which require towns to allow a ‘Fair Share’ of affordable housing. In Princeton, this state-level involvement is the most important factor contributing to housing opportunity. Princeton’s most recent housing element makes plans to build the minimum amount of affordable housing that is commensurate with state law.
Taking these four factors together, we can see the steps that must be taken to provide for greater social and economic mobility in the Princeton area in future. There should be a robust interpretation of state housing law, as envisaged by the Mount Laurel decisions. Planning decisions should move from exclusionary local planning boards to a regional body. The panoply of committees that exist to regulate housing should be streamlined or abolished, and density restrictions should be drastically liberalized. These choices are not easy, and run counter to what many activists imagine might help to reduce inequality. Many residents desire more density restrictions, more limits on new housing, and a looser interpretation of affordable housing laws. But these trends are contributing to a system of widespread inequality. We can’t accept that, and it’s time to try something else.
* Link to full report at the Journal of the American Planning Association (paywall).