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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Home Is Where the Hurt Was

After a bruising legal fight, an affluent New Jersey town has housing for the poor. But it's still a struggle to keep doors of acceptance open.

November 05, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — On a crisp afternoon, Ethel Lawrence Boulevard looks like any other street in this comfortable suburb. Kids play football in front of gray Cape Cod apartments, station wagons roll by, and an autumnal calm blankets the neighborhood.

"It looks normal, doesn't it?" asks Ethel Lawrence-Halley, who helps oversee the 140 apartments. "And that's just the point. After all the anger and hostility we had to deal with building these homes, they look like anywhere else."

Nestled in the heart of Mount Laurel, near Philadelphia, the Ethel Lawrence Homes are one of the few places in America where affordable housing has been built specifically for poor people -- mostly blacks and Latinos -- in an affluent community.

It took three decades of litigation, legislation and financial wizardry to construct these apartments, and the last tenants moved in this year. But the conflict continues. Some longtime residents remain angry, and activists voice frustration that more apartments haven't been built elsewhere.

During the last 20 years, New Jersey towns constructed 30,000 units of affordable housing, more than most states. Yet this falls far short of the need, estimated at 650,000 homes. And little of the new housing has been designated for the poor.

Next month, a state commission will issue new affordable housing goals for each community. But even before these figures are released, some officials warn that too much construction could worsen suburban sprawl, and activists worry that the state's commitment to affordable housing may erode.

The struggle to open suburbia to low-income people and minorities has been waged more intensely in New Jersey than any other state. And it's largely because of Ethel Lawrence -- a teacher who challenged the Garden State's exclusionary zoning laws 34 years ago.

She and others won a sweeping courtroom victory, convincing the New Jersey Supreme Court that communities had a constitutional obligation to build affordable housing for the region's poorest people. No other state has such a legal mandate.

"Ethel Lawrence was an astonishing person, and what she did was very brave," said David Kirp, co-author of "Our Town," a book about the Mount Laurel case.

"She took on the system, and she kept pushing the housing issue," added Kirp, who teaches public policy at UC Berkeley. "What she did was even more sustained than Rosa Parks."

Lawrence died in 1994, and never saw the townhomes that bear her name. But the housing struggle lived on with her daughter, Lawrence-Halley. She kept fighting for the apartments and is now a project administrator at the 62-acre complex.

They became known as the two Ethels.

"You look at the child and you see the mother's face," said Peter O'Connor, a public interest attorney who guided the housing campaign in Mount Laurel. "They're both fighters."

Lawrence-Halley is determined to build similar affordable housing throughout New Jersey, the nation's most suburbanized state. But the painful experience her family had in Mount Laurel gives her pause.

"We fought a long time to finally get these apartments built," she said, picking up stray pebbles on a pathway. She stood at the intersection of four streets named Faith, Equality, Hope and Tolerance, and added: "The issue didn't end once we got the housing built and occupied. We've still got a lot of work to do here."

Across America, a growing number of minorities are moving into the suburbs. The vast majority, however, are moderate- and upper-income residents, not the low-income tenants that activists aimed to help at the Ethel Lawrence Homes -- a handsome development of two-story units clustered around a grassy commons and ringed by trees.

Less than half a mile away, large, two-story homes sell for about $500,000 or more in subdivisions bordering fields and small ponds.

Mount Laurel is a bedroom suburb with acres of open space and no commercial center. The housing, which includes million-dollar properties, features ranches, Colonials, split-levels and "McMansions." About 40,000 people live here.

The town is filled with professionals and business managers who commute to work in Philadelphia or to other suburbs. It is 87% white, and the median family income is $76,280. Some residents in the apartments earn an estimated $10,000 a year.

"The whole point of the Mount Laurel battle was to promote economic justice," Kirp said. "The courts said rich suburbs don't have the right to exclude people based on race or class. They had to provide real housing access."

In Mount Laurel, that theory is being put to the test. And for many townhome residents, the experience has been life-changing.

"My whole outlook is different," said Chicon Cruz, 27, a single mother of twins who works as an accountant. "I have a sense of hope. My girls can go to a good school. I feel confident about my future for the first time."

*

The crusade for affordable housing took off in 1970 after an insult in church.

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