The Princeton Municipality Council has consistently taken admirable positions on affordable housing. But the actions that have been taken to date only address one part of the problem, and the 124 new affordable units currently planned for construction are only a small fraction of the 1,900 households waiting for affordable homes in Princeton, or the 12,000 for sale and rental units here.
To make better progress on this issue, Princeton needs to think beyond traditional public housing and affordable housing finance programs, and specifically should consider ways to:
• Reduce housing construction costs
• Support the construction of housing that matches needs for more income categories
• Include household transportation costs when thinking about where to locate affordable housing
Community Support for Affordable Housing in Princeton is Historically Strong
Princeton’s Housing Authority was established in the 1920s, and Princeton Community Housing was established in the late 1960s, each before new laws required local governments to work harder to supply affordable housing.
Recently, in response to COAH’s finding that Princeton had no obligation to provide additional affordable housing units over the next decade, town representatives clearly objected, in an editorial position and in comments to the State.
And the town has promoted the inclusion of affordable units in the in-progress Avalon Bay, Merwick-Stanworth, and Copperwood projects, which together will add 124 new units to the municipality’s inventory of units available, a big increase compared the municipality’s current inventory of 935 affordable units. (See this PCH presentation for more)
Affordable Housing in Princeton Still only Scratches the Surface in Terms of the Need
The affordable housing shortfall described above only reflects the needs of “qualifying” households in certain income ranges. There is also the middle part of the housing market that is employed but still can’t afford to live here, including young families, municipal employees, and others.
According to Princeton Community Housing, less than 10% of homes in Princeton are affordable to households with low and moderate incomes. Since “moderate income” is defined as being between 80% and 120% of the area’s median household income (in Princeton, between $90,00 and $130,000), this means that more than 50 percent of existing Princeton residents can’t afford buy a new home in Princeton based on their income alone.
It is telling that there is such an active market in Princeton for the demolition of smaller, traditional homes in the price range of $500,000-$600,000, and their replacement with newer houses offered at prices between $1.5 and $2.0 million. It is also telling that many of Princeton’s municipal employees do not and can’t afford to live in town. Traveling long distances to work comes at a large personal cost to these employees, and diminishes the time and energy they can afford to give to the community.
Ways to Make Market Housing More Affordable to More Households
Reduce costs of constructing new housing/serve more segments of the housing market
One way to reduce housing costs is to update the town’s zoning to permit smaller size units. There is increasing interest in many U.S housing markets in micro-units and in allowing accessory dwellings. In appropriate locations around the municipality, these innovations could be considered.
Another way to reduce housing costs would be to reduce requirements to provide parking spaces in neighborhoods where there are many different transportation options. Because parking requirements can increase housing construction costs by between 12% and 25% depending on location and requirements, they limit the amount of new housing that can be built which in turn contributes to higher prices.
Many Princeton residents are concerned that adding housing – particularly parking-“light” housing – will aggravate traffic and parking concerns locally. The experience of places like Arlington, Va., however, show how to accommodate new housing without aggravating traffic and parking issues. Since 1970, Arlington has seen only modest traffic growth along its 2.5-mile length (see slides 45 and 46). Arlington is denser than Princeton, but still shows the possibility of growing, improving walkability, and preserving established single-family home communities without significant traffic impact.
Locate Affordable Housing and Affordable Market-Rate Housing Closer to Town Center
A growing body of research led by the Center for Neighborhood Transportation demonstrates that households in walk-able, bike-able, transit-served settings spend a smaller portion of their income on housing and transportation costs combined than households in exclusively auto-served settings. Housing in these places is thus more affordable than their auto-oriented counterparts – not just for households, but for the public agencies that provide transit service to those places.
The household income and social service cost impacts are only rarely included in accounting of affordable housing costs, or in evaluations of alternative affordable housing project locations, but they are real. Princeton should factor these impacts into future affordable housing site location decision-making.
Opportunities to Apply Broadened Thinking in Princeton
If Princeton’s historic commitment to an economically and socially diverse community can include a broader view of housing affordability, where are there opportunities to apply that commitment? A number of opportunities come to mind:
Valley Road School site: Located near transit, municipal services, and easily accessible to shopping by foot and bike, the Valley Road school would be an outstanding site to make available to municipal employees.
Franklin Avenue parking lot and Harrison Street Princeton Fire and Rescue site (PFARS): these properties have many attributes similar to the Valley Road site, but could be oriented more towards market rate housing with affordable housing units included (following the Merwick Stanworth, Avalon Bay, and Copperwood examples)
Witherspoon Street Rezoning: as the Princeton Council considers the future of zoning designations for properties along Witherspoon, questions about how to reduce the cost of housing could be particularly relevant, particularly for providing housing affordable to middle-income households.
Harrison Street Shopping Center: The shopping center is well situated for a redevelopment that includes housing over shops, with an orientation towards households in income categories that might otherwise find it difficult to enter the Princeton housing market.
How We Think and Talk about “Affordable Housing”
The availability of housing that is affordable to a broader range of households is important to everyone. Taking myself as a (hopefully) representative example of someone who doesn’t require affordable housing support personally:
• I’d like my daughters to be able to afford to live nearby when they settle down after college;
• If my parents move out of their home on Long Island, I’d like for them to be able to live in an apartment in the center of Princeton as driving becomes more difficult for them. That’s a potential I’d like for myself, too.
• If home healthcare is needed for my parents or eventually me, I’d like to be able to count on having assistance from people who live nearby.
• Thinking about schools, I’d like more of my children’s teachers to be members of the community. When I was young, my teachers lived nearby, and my parents knew them socially
• And thinking about traffic, why wouldn’t I want people who are currently driving to jobs in the community to actually live here and substitute driving into town (an impact) for walking or biking to work here (a benefit).
But whatever the specifics, the way we think and talk and about housing affordability — and where we as a community make affordable housing available — are key elements of whether we are able as a community to meet our goals of social and economic diversity, and community sustainability, as well as our many diverse self-interests.
And we should think more about “housing that’s affordable” – housing appropriate for, and affordable to, every income cohort in the community – rather than about “affordable housing.” The former treats housing affordability as an issue of widespread relevance in the community, whereas the latter paints the issue as a social safety net program for some and of limited interest to others.