About Peter J. O’Connor
Peter J. O’Connor has long fought for social justice. O’Connor arrived in Southern New Jersey following his graduation from Georgetown University Law Center. His work as a Legal Services attorney involved law reform efforts in landlord-tenant, consumer, housing, mental health, and state/federal civil rights law. As the lead counsel in the Camden Coalition litigation in 1970 to 1972, O’Connor challenged the City of Camden’s “urban revitalization” and highway construction efforts that caused massive displacement of Camden residents. O’Connor’s efforts gave rise to a White House campaign spearheaded by Vice President Spiro Agnew to limit the activities of federally-funded Legal Service programs.
In May 1971, O’Connor and two other Legal Services attorneys, Carl S. Bisgaier and Kenneth E. Meiser, filed suit on behalf of individual plaintiffs and the NAACP to challenge suburban Mount Laurel Township’s refusal to permit affordable housing in Mount Laurel. That case, Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Mount Laurel, was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975, and again in 1983, and led to the first requirement in that nation that all municipalities provide for their fair share of the region’s need for affordable housing. In 1985, the Legislature passed the Fair Housing Act, which created the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, an executive agency empowered to ensure compliance by New Jersey municipalities with their Mount Laurel obligations. Since COAH’s creation, over 59,000 units of affordable housing have been constructed in New Jersey.
Over four decades after he started working in South Jersey, O’Connor’s interests in urban deterioration, affordable housing, and regional equity continue. From 1978 to 1980, O’Connor spearheaded the construction of the 402-unit Northgate II development in North Camden, a project that formed part of the settlement of Camden Coalition lawsuit. The complex has on-site management, maintenance and security staff and also provides social and recreational services.
In 1983, O’Connor worked in suburban Deptford Township developing New Sharon Woods, a 50-unit affordable housing development for families. In 1986, O’Connor developed Pennsville Towers, a 100-unit affordable housing project for seniors. He also has worked on rehabilitating houses in North Camden.
In 1995, O’Connor completed a historic rehabilitation project he envisioned in the Cooper Plaza Neighborhood of Camden. The 64-unit project, Cooper Plaza Historic Homes, adjoins Cooper Hospital and has received national and statewide attention in view of the successful historic rehabilitation of it and ongoing management and stabilizing effect in the area.
Most recently, O’Connor’s work has focused on advocating for and constructing long-awaited affordable housing for moderate-income, low-income, and very-poor families and seniors in Mount Laurel and Cherry Hill. In Mount Laurel, Fair Share Housing Development built and manages Ethel R. Lawrence Homes (ERLH), a 176-unit rental development that is named in honor of the lead individual plaintiff in the landmark Mount Laurel litigation. That 62-acre development, which received the Governor’s Housing Excellence Award in 2001, represents the culmination of three decades of work to construct truly affordable housing in a municipality whose resistance to it has become infamous. Social, educational, and recreational services are provided to the residents of the development, which include families making from 10- to 80-percent of median income, a range of affordability with a depth and breadth previously unknown to suburban New Jersey. In 2018, 24 single-family rental homes were also constructed near the ERLH site in a development called Robinson Estates
Ethel R. Lawrence Homes, which opened in Winter 2000 and has received extensive local and national media attention, was dedicated in Summer 2002. Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, spoke at the Dedication. In a demonstration of the significance of the project from a civil rights standpoint, the names of the 40 people who were killed during the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) were read from the stage by the plaintiffs, ending with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2018, O’Connor won another decades-long battle to build high-opportunity affordable housing, this time in Cherry Hill Township. The Evans-Francis Estates project is unique because it would be the second of only two affordable housing developments in the suburbs of New Jersey to reach poor families with incomes as low as 20 to 60 percent of median income. The first such development was ERLH. Construction on Evans-Francis Estates, which will result in two-story garden rental apartments and townhomes, including 16 one-bedroom units, 22 two-bedroom units and 16 three-bedroom units, is expected to be completed in 2021. The 54 units will be housed in four buildings over 4.2 acres. Five of the apartments will assist formerly homeless people.
Fair Share Housing Development is slated to develop three additional affordable housing developments in suburban New Jersey in the next several years, including a 184-unit senior development in Mount Laurel, a 36-unit family development, also in Mount Laurel, and a 120-unit family rental development in Woolwich Township, the fastest growing municipality on the East Coast according to 2004 Census figures. Also under construction is an Outdoor Recreation Area and Education Center adjacent to Ethel R. Lawrence Homes, which is slated to open in 2021.
In addition to putting shovels in the dirt, O’Connor continues to assist the fight for fair housing rights in New Jersey courtrooms. As the founder and former Executive Director of Fair Share Housing Center, O’Connor remains part of the team of FSHC lawyers representing the original Mount Laurel plaintiffs in litigation against Mount Laurel and Cherry Hill Townships which has forced those municipalities to provide for their fair share obligations. O’Connor represented the plaintiffs in litigation against the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency for its perpetuation of racial and economic segregation through the use of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, the first case of its kind in the nation; and against a corporation that attempted to redevelop the former Garden State Racetrack in Cherry Hill without providing any affordable housing on-site, a case on which the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2002 released a unanimous decision in favor of the plaintiffs after it took the case on interlocutory appeal directly from the trial court. Additionally, O’Connor succeeded in negotiating a settlement with Woolwich Township that will result in 100 units of housing for families, including very-low income families.
O’Connor’s development and advocacy interests continue to focus on reducing the concentration of poverty in the inner cities of NJ, fighting racial segregation in housing and public schools, and working to develop high quality affordable housing in a state with the second highest rental housing costs in the nation. NJ also remains one of the country’s more segregated states.
The effort of the Mount Laurel plaintiffs, O’Connor, and others to provide regional affordable housing opportunities is the subject of Our Town: Race, Housing and the Soul of Suburbia, by David L. Kirp, John P. Dwyer, Larry A. Rosenthal of the University of California at Berkeley.