September 1, 2021

Virtual Program on Affordable Housing Is a Joint Project of Three Synagogues

By Anne Levin

Three local houses of worship are collaborating on a program that explores affordable housing.

On Sunday, October 3 at 5 p.m., The Jewish Center Princeton, Har Sinai Temple of Pennington, and Congregation Beth Chaim of Princeton Junction will jointly present an online discussion that delves into issues of exclusionary zoning and its history in New Jersey.

The Mount Laurel decisions of 1975 and 1983 declared that municipal land use regulations that prevent affordable housing opportunities for the poor are unconstitutional.

The subject is particularly relevant to the Jewish faith because of its emphasis on welcoming and hospitality. “To me, it’s very much of a piece with the Jewish value of treating strangers,” said Peter Buchsbaum, who will moderate the event. Buchsbaum is a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, of counsel to Lanza and Lanza in Flemington, and court master in six Mount Laurel cases.

Speakers will include Carl Bisgaier, who was the lead counsel in the first two Mount Laurel cases and is a real estate and affordable housing attorney; Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, lead author of Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb; and Dietra Chamberlain, a resident of Ethel R. Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel since December 2004.

The Ethel Lawrence Homes are named for the Mount Laurel activist who organized a 1969 petition to the Mount Laurel zoning board to permit the development of affordable garden apartments and was a plaintiff in both cases, but died in 1994, six years before the first units were completed.

For Buchsbaum, awareness of housing inequity dates to his days as a young lawyer in Mahwah, when he noticed that autoworkers could not find housing near the automobile factories.

“I did not like the idea that people could not live where they were working and were in effect barred by zoning laws from buying housing in the vicinity of their work,” he said in a press release. “I don’t think people are aware of how much the legal framework has influenced the residential pattern in which we live. If you don’t allow apartments and only single-family homes on acreage, you will only get certain clientele.”

A member of Har Sinai, Buchsbaum emphasizes that the synagogue was the last to leave Trenton. The temple moved to Pennington in 2006.  “We have a 150-year heritage in the city,” he said. “We don’t want to leave that totally behind.”

The event is designed to be informative and educational. “It is important for [people] to know how New Jersey came to be as segregated as it is, and zoning restrictions are an important part of that. Both private discrimination and the strictness of zoning laws in the suburbs have developed a very residentially segregated society, and we have to face up to it,” Buchsbaum said. “Part of the legal structure of our state has been separating rich and poor and Black and white through strict regulation of housing. The Mount Laurel laws are not some alien imposition, but are very much part of the struggle to dismantle racial division in our country.”

Buchsbaum acknowledges responsibility for his own role, as a Jew, in New Jersey’s massively segregated society.

“Jews were part of the movement to the suburbs. We left cities after the ’67 insurrections and became part of a suburban lifestyle,” he said. “In effect we opted to live in these economically segregated communities. It is not that we created the system but we have been living in that context.” 

This online program is open to all. To register or for more information, email