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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.”

climbing_225The 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.