Southern Bulington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel: Municipalities Must Zone to Provide a Fair Share of Regional Housing Needs


Two of the biggest problems lower and moderate income people face today are housing shortages and center city unemployment. Exclusionary zoning in the suburbs aggravates both problems. Most of the new blue-collar jobs that the lower classes traditionally hold are being created in the suburbs and not inthe center cities where many of the poorer people live. At the same time, exclusionary zoning practices have raised the costs of suburban housing to levels that are often affordable only by wealthier people, thereby making it economically unfeasible for urban-dwelling workers to move to the suburbs. Since inexpensive, direct public transportation between urban housing and suburban jobs is seldom available, the jobs are frequently beyond the reach of the inner-city dwellers who need them.

While the harmful effects of exclusionary zoning are well known, the following justifications for its use have been advanced: (1) that it maintains the rural character of an area; (2) that it keeps the community homogeneous by excluding low income families and minorities; (3) that it makes possible a low tax rate; and (4) that it promotes public health and safety. In states in which the state government plays a relatively small role in helping municipalities finance local services, the pressure for zoning to keep property taxes low may be even greater than elsewhere. Furthermore, a municipality may zone to retain these “advantages” for itself without regard for other municipalities in the region–many of which may follow similar zoning tactics. As a result, entire regions may be zoned in an exclusionary manner.

Courts have tended to uphold exclusionary zoning plans, though not without a heavy volume of criticism in legal literature. However, some recent cases indicate that the position of state courts may be shifting. Prominent among these cases is Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously invalidated, in the interest of the region as a whole, a zoning ordinance which was less exclusionary than many.

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