The hot-button issue of New Jersey’s housing policies

The hot-button issue of New Jersey’s housing policies

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Catholic Charities is leading the Diocese of Camden in 40 Days of Francis, a time of preparation for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. For the next several weeks, leaders in the community will reflect on particular issues of poverty in the Diocese of Camden and how people of good will can respond, in the spirit of Pope Francis, to the “cry of the poor.”

Pope Francis’ visit to our region couldn’t be coming at a better time.

Amidst the ongoing national dialogue on race and deepening concerns about inequality, the Holy Father has spoken prophetically about much of what ails our nation.

He has consistently and repeatedly criticized the excesses of capitalism, which create a “throw away culture” where everything, including human beings, are subservient to the profit motive. He follows closely in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, whose powerful example taught the church that solidarity with the poor brings us closer to God.

These larger issues of inequality and social justice may seem far away from us in South Jersey, where many Catholics live solidly middle class lives in leafy subdivisions, spending way too much time shuttling our kids between school and soccer practice.

But the struggle to build a more just society, to grow God’s kingdom on Earth, plays out in ways both large and small in each of our lives and is our collective responsibility. And the middle- and upper-class communities across our region are on the front lines to follow the Holy Father’s prophetic call here in our own state.

We in New Jersey should rightfully be proud to be living in one of the most prosperous states in the country.

But tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are being denied the opportunity to share in that prosperity. Indeed, New Jersey’s very prosperity causes unintended consequences. Our successful schools and abundant employment opportunities mean that New Jersey has some of the highest property values in the country, essentially pricing out our most vulnerable residents from our most prosperous communities.

The effects of this play out in real ways across our state.

It means that thousands of working families are trapped in cycles of poverty with children locked out of the educational opportunities a thriving school provides and parents kept far away from growing suburban employment opportunities. It means that senior citizens are unable to enjoy their golden years in the towns where they have lived for decades. And it means that our brothers and sisters with disabilities or struggling with domestic violence or homelessness have no place they can afford to call home.

Fortunately, our state’s constitution has a response to this problem. It requires that towns do their fair share to ensure that working families, disabled, seniors and others have the opportunity.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently restated this responsibility, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, in the strongest possible terms. In an attempt to get out state’s housing policies working again after many years of gridlock, the justices, in a unanimous decision released in March, directed towns to develop new housing plans. These plans are now being developed and submitted to lower court judges.

In the face of such a hot-button issue, it’s easy to bow out and leave others to hold our local elected officials accountable to this process.

But that’s not what our faith calls us to do. Instead, we must actively engage in this process, acting as a voice on behalf of our brothers and sisters who deserve the same opportunity to build better futures for themselves.

As Jesus tells us, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”

Kevin Walsh is executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill, a nonprofit group that advocates for fair housing policies in New Jersey. He is a former board member of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Camden and, with his children and wife, is a parishioner of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Camden.

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