Overcoming Controversy: Q&A with Douglas S. Massey, Author of Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb Mount Laurel, NJ


Ethel Lawrence Homes is an award-winning affordable rental apartment housing complex located in upscale Mount Laurel Township, about 30 minutes from downtown Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Fair Share Housing Development

Ethel Lawrence Homes is nothing like the public-housing developments put up in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Fair Share Housing Development


Douglas S. Massey of Princeton University is the lead author of Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb (2013). I spoke with him in June 2014.

You hoped that this book about the affordable-housing development central to the Mount Laurel case would “bring needed facts and reason to the debate” about affordable housing. Has it? Or is it too early to tell?

Douglas Massey: Well, it’s too early for me to tell. Locally the Mount Laurel situation was a tempest in a teapot. The affordable-housing development was very controversial then, but not now. And the late Ethel Lawrence, for whom the development is named, has become something of a local civil-rights hero.

But statewide, the tempest continues?

Douglas Massey: Yes, there is a lot of hostility and opposition. The current governor has opposed the court decision at every turn and tried to undo its basic premise requiring every New Jersey community to have its “fair share” of affordable housing.

In that environment, how is the book doing?

Douglas Massey: It seems to be doing quite well. People in the field tell me it’s been quite useful.

Even though it is a book of sociology?

Douglas Massey: Well, we aimed not to make it overly academic, while keeping it academically defensible. We try to tell a story using graphs, pictures, and quotations from interviews, and put the statistics in the back.

And the gist of the story is that a well-designed and well-maintained affordable-housing development in a prosperous suburb did no harm to daily life or property values elsewhere in the suburb, while being good for the people living in the development.

Douglas Massey: Yes, but that is very different from saying that it is a cure for all social problems. This is a path of upward mobility for those who are motivated. It is for the tens and hundreds of thousands of people who want to get ahead but are trapped – they can’t find a base from which to launch. Ethel Lawrence Homes has provided that base. You have people going out and working and shopping and interacting, and the kids go to school where they interact. You’re producing kids who know how to navigate mainstream society, not an overwhelmingly poor neighborhood. And most Mount Laurel residents today don’t know that it’s there.

Is this the first book of its kind?

Douglas Massey: There have been various attempts to evaluate affordable housing, but nothing quite like this – a systematic evaluation of a single project and its effects on both its residents and the surrounding communities. There have been evaluations of Section 8 (housing voucher) programs and global evaluations of the Mount Laurel decisions, but nothing that got to the meat of the issues.

Speaking of meat, I was interested in the book’s up-front acknowledgment that suburban residents might have legitimate non-racist concerns about affordable housing coming in.

Douglas Massey: The record of public housing in the US is not good. People do have empirical grounds to wonder what will happen. But Ethel Lawrence Homes is nothing like the kind of public-housing developments put up in the 1960s. Nor is it like the way that Section 8 certificate holders often all get placed into one neighborhood, with predictable effects. Instead, this is a model of how it should be done and proof of concept. The key to affordable housing is not to concentrate it and to build and maintain it so that it blends in.

That seems like an interesting and hopeful message.

Douglas Massey: In general it’s hard to break through to the public.

More now than before?

Douglas Massey: We are in a very anti-intellectual and anti-science time. What plays on TV is emotion and not reason. It may be the most anti-science time since the 1920s.

Yet this is a message that local officials and residents might want to hear.

Douglas Massey: I hope they’ll look at it when an affordable-housing development is proposed — and instead of wasting taxpayer dollars fighting it, they’ll say “Let’s make sure that this is built and kept up the same way Ethel Lawrence Homes was done.”

Interview has been condensed and edited.