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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Liman Fellow Bassam F. Gergi ’17: “Prying Open the Doors of Opportunity for New Jersey’s Working Families”

Stained Glass Stairwell

As a 2019-2020 Liman Fellow at the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Bassam F. Gergi ’17 litigated against dozens of New Jersey’s wealthiest and most exclusive towns and cities to compel them to zone for and sponsor the construction of affordable housing. Now in the second year of his fellowship, his focus includes ensuring residential developments on state-owned lands include affordable housing. He wrote this essay, “Prying Open the Doors of Opportunity for New Jersey’s Working Families,” for The Liman Center Reports in the summer of 2020.

More than a century ago, in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that America has not been “another word for Opportunity to all her children.” Instead, for too many children, especially the descendants of slavery, “the doors of Opportunity” were “closed roughly in their face,” Du Bois wrote. The result was that the promise of freedom was not fully realized.

Eighty years later, in a series of decisions that have come to be known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, the New Jersey Supreme Court echoed Du Bois when it firmly rejected attempts by towns to use their zoning powers to exclude housing that would be affordable to working families, Black and Latinx disproportionately. The Court wrote that it “is not fair to require a poor man to prove you were wrong the second time you slam the door in his face,” and it required towns and cities in New Jersey to use their zoning powers to ensure the development of their “fair share” of affordable housing.

Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC), a nonprofit based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has dedicated itself for more than 40 years to working, through the enforcement of the Mount Laurel doctrine, to pry open those closed doors of opportunity in some of the county’s wealthiest and most exclusive towns and cities.

We do this work because we know that providingBassam F. Gergi homes that are affordable in communities with strong schools and good job prospects has a transformative impact on the lives of lower-income persons. It also helps break down patterns of residential segregation produced by intentionally discriminatory policies that endure, and are often reinforced with state support, to this day.

Since joining FSHC in September 2019, I have been one of a small team of lawyers who have continued to push towns and cities across New Jersey to fulfill their constitutional obligations.

Among the notable cases I have worked on is a matter involving the borough of Englewood Cliffs, the fifth wealthiest ZIP code in America. Since the first Mount Laurel decision in 1975, Englewood Cliffs has not allowed a single affordable home to be built in the borough — not a single one. For four years, FSHC tried to persuade Englewood Cliffs to voluntarily comply with its constitutional obligations. It refused. The case came to a head late last year, and trial was held in mid-October 2019.

After two grueling months of trial, Judge Christine A. Farrington of the New Jersey Superior Court issued a 129-page opinion that found that Englewood Cliffs — again, a town with zero affordable homes — has to allow for the construction of up to 347 affordable homes within the next five years. The decision received widespread press coverage in New Jersey and will bring a substantial number of new affordable homes to one of America’s wealthiest and most exclusionary towns.

A more recent case I led on involved the city of Hoboken, which is a classic example of the perils of gentrification. From 1980 to the present, due in part to an arson campaign that displaced thousands and the influx of high-earning whites, Hoboken’s Latinx population plummeted from more than 40 percent to only 16 percent. Over those same years, Hoboken’s non-Hispanic white population rose from less than 50 percent to over 70 percent.

“After two grueling months of trial…a town with zero affordable homes…has to allow for the construction of up to 347 affordable homes within the next five years.”
Bassam F. Gergi ’17

In mid-April 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that has led to mass unemployment and the threat of mass evictions, the Hoboken City Council voted to allow a developer to build 150 new luxury units and a 23-story hotel — without providing any of the affordable homes required by the city’s own ordinances. Instead, the city traded away affordable homes for nothing more than a financial contribution to a future swimming pool.

In early June 2020, I drafted and filed on behalf of FSHC a complaint that challenged the city’s giveaway. And after a concerted organizing campaign led by local advocates, the city relented and settled with FSHC. Hoboken agreed to require the developer to provide at least 37 affordable homes, 20 homes for lower-income families and 17 homes for homeless veterans. These will be among some of the first new affordable homes built in Hoboken in years.

These cases are just two of hundreds that FSHC is currently involved in that are leading to the construction of thousands of new affordable homes in New Jersey. Especially now, with renewed attention being paid to systemic racism, it is rewarding to be engaged in the work of helping to create affordable housing opportunities for those working families who have been segregated out of large swaths of New Jersey. And I sincerely thank the Liman Center for its steadfast support.