OPINION: If South Orange-Maplewood Wants to be Progressive, We Need to Change Our Zoning Laws

by Jake Knoll
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To the Editors:

In 1926, the Supreme Court sided with the town of Euclid, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) in a case against the Ambler Realty Company, who wanted to build apartments on a previously unused tract of land in the southern part of the town. While the town of Euclid could no longer explicitly zone for race by this time, they were practicing a new idea known as “economic zoning”, in which the character or class of a neighborhood would be preserved by only building specific kinds of housing, which, unsurprisingly, were larger more expensive homes that would be occupied almost exclusively by whites. The Court’s decision in Euclid v. Ambler, which legalized what we now call exclusionary zoning, had a catastrophic impact on the project of racial integration in the United States, and as Richard Rothstein notes in his bestselling book The Color of Law, countless towns and cities in both the north and south were soon using economic based exclusionary zoning to effectively segregate their neighborhoods; often with the help of federal and state governments. 

This is the very system that exists in Maplewood and South Orange today. Nearly all of the residential land in our two towns is zoned for detached single family housing, often on large lots, some with a minimum size as high as 7,000 square feet, and with only a small percentage of land zoned for multifamily housing (predominantly in our more diverse, lower income neighborhoods). Simply put, the kinds of homes that are legal to build in much of our community are expensive ones; and this is intentional. Whether we like it or not, the current zoning laws in Maplewood and South Orange are the result of Jim Crow Era segregationist policies and are a living vestige of institutional racism in the housing market. The failure to legalize multifamily housing is de facto segregation. 

Of course, the issues of exclusionary zoning extend beyond just racial injustice. The affordability issues that are designed to discriminate also undermine the housing market on class and income lines more broadly. Mapso, once a community open to those seeking its opportunities, is now closed to all but those who can afford towns where just this summer, the median home sold for over $800,000. Exclusionary zoning inflates prices by keeping supply too low to meet demand, and with many wanting to live here, we have artificially inflated housing prices at the expense of those who just want to be our neighbors, but can’t afford to. Lack of supply in Maplewood and South Orange also puts pressure on surrounding communities to make up the difference, many of which are far less privileged; for every unit Maplewood fails to build, another neighborhood in Orange faces displacement. This is all made worse by the fact that we are, by extension, denying lower income people and families access to a commuter rail line with direct service to the largest job market in the country, making it that much more difficult for them to have the opportunities that everyone in our towns is privileged to. Is access to our community, our opportunities, and our amenities only for the rich? Right now, that seems to be the case. 

There is also the environmental question – single family sprawl is unsustainable and has a much higher environmental impact than neighborhoods with multifamily housing and apartments. In particular, transit oriented development significantly decreases per capita carbon emissions, which is a necessity in our fight against climate change. Urban infill and denser housing also preserve green space by reducing the need for undeveloped land to house new residents, and so density results in less deforestation and habitat destruction when compared with single family sprawl (here’s a helpful visual guide). Without changing our current insistence on sprawl, we cannot take the necessary steps to become a truly environmentally friendly community. The current regiment of auto-centric single family zoning is simply unsustainable. 

The good news is that all of this is fixable. With the right policies, we can work to undo the harms of past land use decisions. We can take true progressive steps to make our town more diverse, more affordable, and more green. We can follow in the footsteps of other places with like minded politics – like California – which recently legalized, by right, duplexes (with two Accessory Dwelling Units) on every lot in the state, and made apartment construction near transit significantly easier. By ending exclusionary zoning and legalizing multifamily housing, Maplewood and South Orange can make real progress, both for our communities and for those around us, and we should be calling on our elected officials to do so immediately. 

This will obviously be a change for our towns, it would change the “neighborhood character” by allowing multifamily housing where it has not previously been legal. It would also mean more apartments near our train stations and other transit corridors. But we have to decide what we want the character of our town to be. Do we want our character to be exclusionary, a surviving piece of Jim Crow still in existence in our town? Or do we want to be diverse, welcoming, and equitable? Do we want our character to be unaffordable and out of reach? Or do we want to be a community where everyone can have an opportunity? Do we want our character to be car centric sprawl? Or do we want to be walkable, bikeable, and transit connected with a lower carbon footprint? 

To me, the choice here is clear. It’s time for change.

Jake Knoll
Maplewood, NJ

Jake is a lifelong Maplewood resident currently studying political science and issue advocacy at the George Washington University.

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