Planet Princeton

Princeton Needs a More Comprehensive Approach to Address Affordable Housing

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.

Nat Bottigheimer

Nat Bottigheimer is a professional transportation planner and consultant with a background in public policy and real estate economics. He is currently working on TOD, streetcar, and bus dedicated lane planning projects in the Washington, DC region. He was a member of the Alexander Street University Place Task Force, and is a current member of the Princeton Traffic and Transportation and Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees. He’s married to Eve Ostriker, an astrophysicist at Princeton University; and has two daughters, one at PHS. The most recent family addition is Basil, a one-year old labradoodle who gives the term “active transportation” new meaning.

  • FreshAir

    The need for affordable housing, described in your opinion, is inaccurate. The number you used to define that need is grossly exaggerated.*** When an individual/head of household in Princeton applies at one bureau/agency for housing, they are instructed to apply to ALL of the affordable housing agencies serving Princeton. The combined lists of housing bureaus repeats, and therefore multiplies, the actual need of one applicant for one home many times over. Your number also contains the roughly 30% of households who are not living in Princeton. Further, it contains people who may no longer need or want affordable housing, for a variety of personal reasons. Counting applicants multiple times, from lists that are not updated, is the only way this huge number of 1900 on waiting lists could have been created. ***Considering the population and demographic trends it Princeton, it seems the problem of housing “workers’ may also be grossly exaggerated in your article.The bulk of the population of Princeton is comprised of college/grad students and their family members. We are a predominantly young population, and many of us would love to work in town for earned income to supplement university wages and employment opportunities. ***** Government spending should be based on real needs, instead of those proposed by special interests, those based on exaggerated problems, or those wishing to fulfill personal dreams with taxpayer dollars.*** It is encouraging to hear that some citizens here in are genuinely trying to collect and analyze REAL data about SUBURBAN Princeton. I hope you join them someday.

  • FreshAir

    We are from different generations, with different lexicons and sensibilities. Please imagine the mess, stress and detritus that Nat B’s generation (and his elders) will create for the future (smaller) generations predicted on this planet, if Nat’s dream to overbuild our beautiful town…for the short term
    needs of a generation that has bankrupted the dreams of many…comes true. Cheap construction and less car access are NOT modern ideas. SMART little, electric, natural gas, and hydrogen powered vehicles, will provide access and FREEDOM to new generations, and have a place in the beautiful SUBURBS of the future. Health, happiness, and FREEDOM from a transit schedule will be part of the planning equation. In my opinion, Princeton’s “plan” should allow “homes” in all income levels and parking for smart vehicles. We don’t have adequate transit systems…but a diverse population and smart cars are here right now. As for your question about the “set-aside”… it is ONE smart component in the plan for the future. A thorough assessment of Princeton’s population must be done, to determine what is TRULY needed. To be fair to taxpayers, grad student apartments, college/university students who contribute to our local workforce, and University/Seminary/Institute populations using the school system must be counted in that needs assessment. A “waiting list” should NOT drive planning, nor should the needs of the elderly for more “service” people to ne put in “units”. A sustainable, diverse, livable, beautiful community is a real possibility for the future in Princeton…and it looks nothing like Arlington, VA. It will be sad if Nat B’s dream of units, placed above the stores in shopping centers obscure the sun in the central squares of Princeton. Let’s hope creepy urban housing and more unusable transit messes are NOT funded here. Technology and the world are changing, and plans must be made for THAT.

  • When I lived in Aspen CO for many years they started a Transit Authority, funded it, and created free bus service around town & to surrounding slopes and residential areas. It was heavily used by tourists and locals alike. Think there were 3 routes and each ran every 20 minutes until late at night, so you didn’t really even have to think about it. You just went to the nearest stop and got on. I never owned a car until I moved back here in the 80s.

  • SFB

    I like the 20% set-aside because of the integration, yes. But it doesn’t really increase affordability per se. The 20% ‘affordable’ units are just subsidized by higher rents in the market-rate units. But I’ll take it. Where do you think we should use the 20% rule?

  • Princeton Rez

    How about Princeton University, with its $21 billion endowment, builds or creates affordable housing for its employees ON ITS EVER GROWING CAMPUS so they don’t have to schelp from towns 10, 20, 30 or more miles away. They are not fulfilling their duties to their employees and their rentals in town are basically market rate.

  • PedestrianFriendly

    How about the elimination of on-street parking in the recent Hamilton street bicycling proposal?

  • FreshAir

    SFB, I have consistently written that I am in favor of more affordable housing options in Princeton. I posted here because I am shocked that Nat B doesn’t think the 20% set aside is a GREAT idea. It is an egalitarian approach that creates ONE community. Micro units, no parking etc. are not reasonable suggestions made by Nat B. I have tried to explain with true examples why they limit freedoms and options, and might even threaten the health of those with lower incomes. I think everyone who wants a car here should drive one…AND should be able to park easily…and, I think parking should be free in town for residents. As far as people “serving us”, your elitist attitude that would label people and place them in one of Nat B’s little dwellings with no car parking is scary to me. You must have a bias against my posts, because they are clear. When I read your posts, I see we both like the 20% Set-aside, so why do you question me and support Nate? If it is about your beloved FreeB, we don’t agree there. Very few people want to wait for a bus in the areas it serves.. and so it is underutilized. It should be repurposed. Since you love it so much, I was trying to think of a good use.

  • SFB

    FreshAir, you really think that the thousands of people who work in Princeton:
    (1) should not expect to be able to live here, because we’re full,
    (2) should not expect to be able to drive into town, because their cars take up too much space?
    You really think this is a fair burden to lay on the people who are serving us and keeping our local businesses running?

  • FreshAir

    No, I think visitors and people who are taking tax dollars out of our town should pay for and should use the Free B. And, I think tax paying residents should be allowed more than a half hour to go to the post office, bank, and talk to their neighbors, as they attempt to shop and live their lives here…so that the taxpayers here can all become part of ONE Princeton.

  • SFB

    Um, the FreeB already provides a shuttle service between a large, free parking lot (Princeton Shopping Center) and the downtown. And nobody uses it, even though it’s free. The Merchants would go crazy if we tried to ban parking for non-residents downtown, because a lot of their trade comes from people from outside the municipality. We have to find solutions that actually work. The only transit scheme in Princeton that effectively moves large numbers of people is Tiger Transit, which is operated by the University at great cost. We could try to expand the FreeB into something like that, but it would require huge investment of tax dollars. Are you prepared to pay that extra tax?

  • FreshAir

    Yes, SFB, many people drive into Princeton to work and take their incomes elsewhere and to play…SO, a very good use for the cute but sorely underutilized “FreeB” system would be to turn it into a parking lot shuttle. The Free B shuttle could bring visitors and non-resident workers from large parking area(s) built to reduce traffic in town…allowing for safer biking for residents, and allowing working residents here to live their lives with less hassles. The visitor parking lots would be accessible from route 1 and/OR somewhere away from our town center. Resident taxpayers here could receive parking permits for downtown parking, or resident permits, to identify them as resident “non-offenders”, allowed to have a little “impact” (since that is how resident taxpayers are viewed in their own town supported by their tax dollars by planners). Visitors would then support the FreeB and the monitoring of in town parking… and the town would start feeling a little bit more like Tomorrowland, for the price of user sustained parking lots. No one living here will hopefully ever experience life in a “micro-unit”, and may even be able to safely bike.

  • SFB

    On-street parking has been reduced two times recently as I can recall. Once on Chambers Street, and another time on Markham Road. In both cases, the changes came at the request of local residents who were concerned about safety. In each case, the restrictions were subject to public comment and Council approval. You can find the relevant ordinances at the municipal website. I don’t think anybody assumes what you think they do. There is no conspiracy against on-street parking in Princeton, quite the opposite. Almost all our roads are available for on-street parking. And none of this has got anything to do with Nat’s original piece.

  • SFB

    What he wrote was entirely sensible. It’s not in any way the same as ‘taking away cars’. The reason it’s difficult to park in Princeton is because you are competing with over 20,000 people who drive into Princeton every day to work. Transit is part of the solution, but it requires a huge tax subsidy. Are you prepared to pay that extra tax?

  • FreshAir

    I am not referring to anything but what is written here in PP by Nat or from online websites about our town. I have no access to politicians in private.

  • FreshAir

    Don’t know about you, but my little family car needs a parking space. In this article where Nat B. suggests people might live in “micro-units”, He writes: “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…” He also writes: “…substitute driving into town (an impact) for walking or biking to work here (a benefit).” Don’t know about you, but where I live in Princeton it snows many months of the year and there are no safe bike paths. People who contribute LOT to our community should resent being labeled “an impact” when it rains, snows, or for some other reason they choose to drive.
    The weenie planning project for the PUs Arts neighborhood rightly has transit experts dreaming of expansion in the future. That is understandable… anyone who visit’s Disney’s Tomorrowland thinks “Why not?” But Princeton has no free Monorail… and countries where workers live in “micro-units” have higher early death rates and more suicides.
    People who live here… want to really LIVE….and deserve to live without added stress 365 days a year. So, I wish Mr. B. would work on the affordable transit part of our community
    equation, instead of dreaming of building “MicroUnits” and small “housing” in neighborhoods without streets (which he does mention as well in an article), Imagine the mess, stress and detritus your generation will leave for the next (smaller) generation predicted on this planet, if you overbuild beautiful towns…all for the short term needs of a generation that has already bankrupted OUR dreams for a better, healthier life. Do we really need cheaper construction and less access NOW, so that you can have your “service workers” nearby? Or will you allow working PEOPLE nice HOMES and a BEAUTIFUL town.

  • PedestrianFriendly

    I would like to think it’s immaterial. But I’m surprised how often, reducing on-street parking in town has been suggested (such as with the recent Hamilton proposal). The assumption is that people don’t need cars or everyone has a driveway or people don’t have guests.

  • PP_sockpuppet#6953

    What somebody else may or may not have said in a private setting is completely immaterial to Nat’s piece. Way off-topic.

  • PedestrianFriendly

    But some Princeton politicians have suggested (in private) making it more difficult for people to have cars in town.

  • SFB

    Um, Nat didn’t ever suggest to take away people’s cars…

  • FreshAir

    As far as your points: #1 – No one argues that COAH misses the mark, in ending Princeton’s obligation. We are still below the National 10% goal (but very close to reaching it) and most people here want to do more. #2 – People who need affordable housing in Princeton want and need cars, parking, and nice finishes in their home… just like other suburban families. #3. Taking away cars in this suburb will tax the well-being and drain the pocketbooks of the struggling resident workforce…It will not help them. For example: Sometime seconds count…an ambulance to take a child to the hospital costs about $600, when one cannot pop them into the car and drive a few miles there in the middle of night for an asthma or sickle cell crisis ( the police will not help). The bill to feed a family goes up, one can no longer take stay-cations at local farms and beaches (which is what low, low middles, and middles here can afford). Kids cannot attend sports activities easily or safely on public transit. Life lived as you envision would become a hell again for those of us who work…. waiting for those wanting a suburban life… waiting under a shed or on a platform in horrific weather… knowing our time is money too and we are wasting it …running late for work…. as we serve CEOs and Master Planners, above the needs of our families. You propose modern slavery. Put DC fabulous metro system here first, and then talk towns without parking. The wonder of Arlington VA transit and life that you describe grew from that system (conceived well in the 70’s well built in the 80’s and growing ever since). Welcome to New Jersey!

  • FreshAir

    When we define Princeton’s fiduciary responsibility, as they manage the local taxpayer’s Trust funds for developing housing, do we always include the 30% who are non-residents?
    Princeton already gives so much in terms of “support” if you define it broadly, to enrich the lives of others. It is somewhat of a breadbasket for local communities. For example, the Princeton government employees who do not live here, but work here, make out well, receiving big paychecks to take back to their towns where houses are more affordable (Police Chief, Town Administrator, Town Planner, etc. etc.). Teachers and school staff who are not local Princeton taxpayers enroll their children in our schools for free, utilizing sports programs, cultural programs etc. etc. The University is a major employer, sending far more money out into the world than they donate back to the town of Princeton. So, How do we fairly define our legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to do above and beyond the standard, when our own residents struggle and are in fear of losing their homes to high taxes? What does the federal government require Princeton to do?
    Again, I’m not opposed to more housing options, I’m excited about them…but what is a true and reasonable responsibility for Princeton residents to shoulder? And, how does a community grow without hurting and violating the dreams and the needs of the people who already live here, pay for services here everyday, and have supported the community for decades?

    Lastly, I feel it is possible that your numbers are not accurate. I feel it is possible that they include those already housed here in the “need”, or those who have applied for and would like affordable housing in other towns.

  • InterestingFinding

    Here’s one study that finds that increased density does increase the cost of providing public services:

    http://www.ncsociology.org/sociationtoday/v21/review2.htm

    So taxes would need to increase. If there are more recent studies, please post them.

  • SFB

    From those figures, I get that Princeton is nowhere near meeting the demand for affordable housing. And we aren’t even trying to build workforce housing. Is this the best we can do? I’d like to think we can do better than other communities- the ones who play ‘pass the buck’ on housing.

  • Nat Bottigheimer

    Sorry I was unclear about “members” versus “households.” It’s “households.” Households, as you correctly point out, contain one or more “members.”

    The statistics I shared were from the waiting list for Princeton Community Housing only. Their list has 1,200 actual households on it, it’s not a planning document. Their list is different from the other lists that other Princeton agencies maintain, but together those lists add up to 1,900 households. I don’t believe there’s overlap between the lists, because each wait list, as I understand it, has different income eligibility requirements for households on it.

    The 30% of households on the PCH list from nearby surrounding communities could certainly include Hopewell, but might also be from Hamilton, Lawrence, Trenton, West Windsor, Plainsboro….I don’t have those figures.

    I would add, though, that I don’t believe these statistics are crucial to the main points of my post, which were: 1) that the housing affordability issue is broader than what’s regulated by COAH; 2) that there are ways to make housing more affordable to more people by taking some of the steps I described; and 3) that taking these steps to make the town more economically inclusive could be to the benefit of the town’s residents, as opposed to an act of a charity that taxes our well-being.

  • SFB

    There are lots of problems with what you say/suggest, but it’s good that somebody is at least suggesting solutions.

  • natcase

    I’m not sure you can do much about “regular people” living and working in Princeton without doubling or tripling the capacity and turning it into another Cambridge, MA. Which you could do. But then it wouldn’t be the Princeton that people wanted to live in initially; it would be a new, much larger population Princeton that maybe different people wanted to live in. Other cities want to limit housing in an effort to retain character and low density. I’d say, let them keep the lower density where it is and gradually, incrementally allow it to increase. If you want to jumpstart capacity, build something new, not out in the woods or meadows somewhere like every developer has been doing for 50 years, but along Rte 1, where there is empty land that’s not especially environmentally sensitive. Build it high density, and add high-capacity transit. Then you’ll be able to keep Princeton SLOWLY growing they way it has been, and alleviate the housing crunch for moderate-income folks, and have more of those folks not have to drive into Princeton from their more-affordable housing in Lawrence, Plainsboro, WW, etc…

  • FreshAir

    Really not sure what you mean by “members” on the list. Are “members” heads of household AND their children/dependents? And, are any of those in need from nearby communities applying from Hopewell (a wealthier town than Princeton, according to income statistics, and one that sorely needs to provide housing according to COAH)?
    It is my understanding that there are roughly 300 qualified applicants on the wait list for rental housing through PCH. You have piqued my interest about where the 1900 household number is coming from and who is counted in your 1200 “members” number. Are these real numbers or a theoretical estimates for planning?
    Princeton, is managing and providing nearly a thousand dwellings now, and will exceed over a thousand in the near future. Many of those homes house several individuals.

  • Nat Bottigheimer

    A couple of questions have come up about who is on the waiting list for affordable units in Princeton. Princeton Community Housing has a waiting list that is distinct from other lists in town (e.g., the Princeton Housing Authority’s), so the following statistics only apply to the 1,200 members of PCH’s wait list, not the whole set of 1,900 households who are waiting.

    Currently, about 70% of those on the PCH waiting list have a direct connection to Princeton (meaning they either live, work or have a family member residing in Princeton). The remaining 30% live nearby in communities immediately surrounding Princeton.

    Further, 45% of the total wait list has a current Princeton mailing address (meaning that 25% of the total wait list consists of those who work in Princeton or who have a family member residing here).

    Hope this helps!

  • FreshAir

    Certainly, I wasn’t implying that housing drives up taxes. The egregious parts of my tax bill are the School and County tax portions. Many suggest that most of the money for our schools trickles UP for administrative costs and OUT for facility costs… and that is a whole other exploration/conversation. I have been consistently saying that Princeton has done a good job so far with affordable housing and that I am in favor of more here…but am also suggesting that the appropriate entities shoulder the responsibility for what happens regarding progress in our region/Mercer County.

  • SFB

    We’re on the same page that middle-income and low-middle income working families are threatened. That’s why I strongly agree that we need more workforce housing. We’ve gone too far the other way building mansions and $1.5 million townhouses. That said, the idea that housing drives up taxes is an urban legend. Plainsboro has seen huge growth in population and housing in recent decades yet they have lower taxes than in Princeton and an almost-equally-good school system.

  • SFB

    Nat, if you don’t add housing, you will radically change the character of the town. It used to be a town where regular people could aspire to live and work. Now we are losing that, hence an ever-growing list of people waiting for affordable housing. What defines the character of the town- the people, or the height of the buildings? Clearly a bit of both, but if we can’t find space for the people who work in Princeton or have family in Princeton, then what kind of ‘personality’ do we really have?

    Looking across the lake is a great idea, but every single local community is trying to find ways to limit new housing. If Princeton, a rich town, says ‘we are going to zone to limit housing’, then why would any of the surrounding communities think to do anything different from that?

  • FreshAir

    Just want to make it clear that my comment above: “great questions and thoughts!” was directed to Lise asking “Who are these 1900…”? It was not directed to SFB.
    SFB, If income-diversity is not viable in Princeton, because taxes become too high and family cars are not allowed…. Princeton WILL someday offer mostly “Master in the manor” housing, affordable housing “units” (for the “service workers”), plus university housing thrown in for a little excitement. Middle income and low-middle income working families are the threatened species here.

  • FreshAir

    In response…

    1059 housing units are are a reality in Princeton…they are occupied now or will be soon. Many house more than one person… young
    families, couples, etc. When the math is done regarding the numbers housed, it seems to me that Princeton has made great progress in helping those needing an assist. With land already dedicated for the purpose, it is clear that Princeton will continue to do more.

    Lise asks a good question: “…Who are these people?” waiting. Surely, some demographic information is available that would assist planners in WISELY solving their needs. Without detail, it is impossible to truly do so.

    Princeton Town Council has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. If those governing fail to manage our assets wisely, tax bills will go up. That will force those at middle or low-middle income onto the housing list, or drive them away.

    So, I believe we should examine Princeton’s role in the REGION, and allow neighboring towns to fill their proper share of needs in housing and transit. If Town Council fails to do this, income diversity will cease to exist in our resident population.

    It is exciting that there will be more affordable housing here. I just hope it is designed based on the real needs of those who live and WORK in our community now. They are, and they will be, shouldering the burden of everyone’s dreams.

    (Regarding the FreeB, People who work cannot wait at a FreeB stop in the rain, sleet, and snow or carry a week’s worth of groceries home to their families in it. The “FreeB” is cute, but not an answer. It serves a very small area and community. )

  • natcase

    But it’s not just low-density, it’s how to do higher-density, and rethinking what Princeton is as part of that. If you reduplicate the Palmer-Square-condos level of density down Nassau St and down Witherspoon—if you make large block apartments the norm, you will radically change the character of the neighborhood. And it’s already been happening, slowly. When I was a kid, Palmer Square and Spring St were very different places. This might be a good thing, in terms of reducing personal-vehicle dependence, but it is a dramatic change in personality. If Princeton wants to remain a small-town-atmosphere thing, it can do that through zoning downtown, but it will need to do it soon, because (based on my experience in Minneapolis) there is a tipping point where a row of 5-6 story blocks becomes a kind of canyon. It can be a very nice, active canyon: Boston/Cambridge have a very active street life and transit system for example, but it’s a different, more urban experience.

    Here’s one idea: develop a high-density set of “villages” on this model across the lake in the undeveloped area along Route 1 (Millstone Creek to MarketFair. Connect then to the University and downtown via a modified Dinky street car and bike/ped corridor.

    Street bus service doesn’t add permanent development, in my experience. Here in Minneapolis, the light rail (and walking proximity to existing hubs) has been driving high density development. Streetcars, light rail, etc. are much more effective drivers of density development. As is putting density next to places with parking issues, so people walk or bike. This is why the area around the University of Minnesota is building up so fast.

  • SFB

    Some good points here but we have to be honest with ourselves that there is an affordable housing problem. 1,900 people are not going to fit in 124 units. I agree that the 20% set-aside rule is a reasonable way to increase affordable housing and also provide market-rate workforce housing. We could take care of all our housing needs if we just used this rule more often.

    As for transit- we currently have a Princeton transit service- the ‘FreeB’. How much should we raise taxes by to increase FreeB service? This is a genuine question. Everybody seems to agree that transit is somehow the solution, but are we ready to pay the bill? I think we all assume that NJ Transit somehow owes us more transit service, but that wish is unlikely to be answered. They gave us a new bus line 2 years ago, and it is still significantly under-utilized. Each NJ Transit bus costs about a million dollars, and that’s before you even put a driver or gas in it.

  • SFB

    Nat, you make a good point that Princeton is going to keep on changing. NJDOT sponsored a report, ‘The Route 1 Growth Strategy’, which identified that the region will become clogged with traffic (yes, even worse than now) if land use patterns remain the same. They concluded that transit would be part of the solution, but only if local municipalities reformulated their land use to allow homes to be built at a density that would support efficient transit. New Jersey cries out for transit, but local communities zone for low-density housing, making transit impossible. Princeton should build the housing that we need to set an example to the region that we are serious about implementing a strategy that will support efficient transit.

  • SFB

    Princeton is a community with lots of smart people. What we need is for everybody to work together to find solutions to the housing question, solutions that maintain the character of the town and provide equitable housing. The redevelopment of the plaza around the library is a good model- new housing and a public space that benefits the whole community. I’m sympathetic to people who like their neighborhood the way it is, but where should all our service workers live?

  • natcase

    A couple echoes here. One is that Princeton is becoming (has become) like ski resorts in Colorado where the dentist can’t afford to live in town. Or like Manhattan is becoming. One piece of this is that no place is really an island: Princeton employees see more reasonable prices in surrounding towns, and move there. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a different model. You live in Queens because you can afford it, and you commute.

    What you begin alluding to here is something that already exists in Princeton and in other high-cost centers: subsidized rentals for specific employee populations. The University and Seminary have housing designed to keep staff and younger faculty closer to campus. Other colleges do this too. You suggest housing for municipality employees, and I don’t know if you’re talking about government employees, or just people who work in town. Subsidizing rental housing for government employees (including teachers) is an intriguing idea, but it sets up the long-term potential for the kind of precarious artificial economy you see in cities with rent control.

    If Princeton is willing and able to think regionally, there might not be as much need for this. People living in Lawrence, Montgomery, etc. are still awfully close to Princeton. Maybe consider more transit enhancements?

    One more thought we’ve just begun facing here in the Twin Cities: if you say you want a more walkable, local community, this may mean a transformation of the urban landscape from a 2-3 story norm to a 5-6+ story norm. The neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota—grungy but distinctive old student-hangout places—are all being rebuilt in big apartment buildings mostly for students. Princeton is obviously a totally different situation—for one thing, it’s the opposite of Minnesota’s shabby Dinkytown, and there’s not that many cheap-student stores left—but beware of unintended consequences, because they are there.

    And the only thing you can depend on, is that Princeton will keep changing.

  • FreshAir

    Great questions and thoughts!

  • FreshAir

    Princeton’s 20% set-aside rule for residential development is one beautiful way, to provide quality housing and opportunities for singles, couples, and families with incomes below the middle and lower levels here. Applicants for local housing desire a car, parking, living space, nice finishes, and the same amenities that many wealthier families consider essential. So, I like Princeton’s egalitarian housing approach… the set-aside rule welcomes everyone to be part of ONE community, while offering a variety of housing experiences. I also like your holistic vision of a community that accommodates all needs.
    The distance from NYC to Princeton as we ride on the train, reminds us that Princeton is a suburban location…one hour from NYC and one hour to Philadelphia. So I struggle when you compare Princeton’s parking and transit options to those in Arlington VA. In Arlington, a very QUICK trip on the DC Metro affordably carries a family to the heart the Mall, to museums, the zoo, parks and a much wider variety of social and cultural experiences. Families in Princeton who can’t easily afford the local market, expensive parking, train travel, and exotic vacations, actually need a car to shop for affordably priced foods, experience the beauty of the area, visit the beach, and more.
    NJ Transit’s train station parking, schedules, and limited routes, combined with Princeton’s parking regulations, provide real hardships for those on a limited income.
    For example, students traveling into NB or NYC for school, or those wishing
    to stay in NYC late for events, are hard pressed to safely and easily meet the access challenges of the Princeton’s parking and transit options. It is nearly impossible to travel from Philadelphia back home at night. Transit system and housing offerings in our wealthiest community of Hopewell are rare, which also places more demands on Princeton.
    If your numbers on local housing needs are correct, Princeton is more than halfway past the point of meeting demand. Why can’t we say the same about New Jersey’s public transit routes, transportation offerings, and parking systems? With your remarkable transit experience, I would love it if you would continue to offer your innovative ideas on transit access, transit safety, and how we can meet local parking needs everyday (including holidays/football season, etc.).
    With all due respect to your thoughtful article, it seems to me that Princeton’s Housing Board and Town Council have shown themselves to be very capable, very ready, and sincerly willing to innovate. A user-friendly, all-inclusive transit experience, one that seems necessary to make your housing ideas work, remains far more elusive.

  • Lise

    Some clarification would be useful. Who are these 1900 families waiting for affordable housing? Are they families that already live in Princeton, but want alternative housing? What are the criteria (besides the income requirements) for being eligible to list oneself for affordable housing in Princeton? Working here? Wanting to live here? This is truly a request for information.

    I sense that affordable housing as an idea has broad support, and I laud the diversity it brings to Princeton. But I wonder how many of its most unbending supporters live in, or near, the in-town neighborhoods where further high-density rental housing, as well as changes to setbacks, parking rules, and other zoning modifications are being proposed. It seems these residents are being asked to bear the burden, and are at the same time scolded as dog-in-the-manger, or glared at as closet elitists, should they raise questions about negative impacts to traffic, noise, and the prospect of grassy yards and green spaces being replaced by plots of parked cars and asphalted ground.

  • Just Sayin’

    Good piece in NYT about transportation needs of elderly: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/10/18/your-money/when-retirement-planning-consider-transportation.html?referrer=.

    You really don’t want to isolate those who can’t afford to take taxis all over.

  • SFB

    I’m mostly thinking about FAR limits, setback minimums, limits on subdivision, parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, limits on accessory developments, height limits, and use stipulations.

    It’s quite easy for a developer to buy land. The question is how to develop it to make money?
    Example: You buy an old house / plot for $600K. You can either:
    1. Put in some granite counters and flip it for $650K. Profit = $50K, minus the cost of materials and transaction costs.
    2. Build a four-plex, and sell all four units for $350K each. Profit = $800K, minus development costs (which would be significant).
    3. Build a huge mansion and sell it for $1.3 million. Profit = $700K, and your development costs would be moderate.

    #2 is the option that would give more market-rate affordable housing. Except that you can’t do #2, because it would be a subdivision. Even if you could get away with that, you are very likely to struggle to fit it within the necessary setbacks, especially when you have to try to fit in a bunch of mandatory off-street parking. If you try to go high to fit it within the setback requirements, then you get caught by a height limit. So the zoning has effectively made market-rate affordable housing illegal. Instead, developers just do #3 = mansions.

  • Blank

    What specific zoning regulations are you thinking of? Developable land in Princeton is scarce and expensive, and lots of people want to live here, many of whom can afford to pay very steep prices. This is why developers build luxury homes whenever they find a tract of land (the Palmer Square townhouses, the new condos on Greenview). I’m very much in favor of more affordable housing in Princeton, but it doesn’t seem like zoning is the primary obstacle to increasing supply. We’ve developed or preserved almost all of the land in the township, and the rest is a university. I’m trying to figure out what you’re referring to. Are you talking about restrictions on infill development? If so, which ones?

  • Jim Jenson

    Wow. That’s a great comment. What would encourage/allow Robert Hillier to build 200 $300k condo’s on the property he owns along Witherspoon (as opposed to getting extorted by the Zoning/Housing foes for years) and then building 100 $650k condos with 15 low-cost units as a sop to the COAH rules.

  • SFB

    Yes, exactly. If you’re only able to build a small number of homes, you build the most expensive homes you can to maximize your profit margin. If there’s an open market where lots of homes can be built, then developers are actually forced to do work, so that they can compete on cost. The way things work right now, it’s easy to make a profit, you just buy an old house, knock it down, throw up a kit house, and sell it for a million five. That’s a classic example of how the current market is working against affordability.

  • Blank

    Definitely worth looking into, but I suspect the real reason developers focus on luxury homes is simply that they’re more profitable.

  • SFB

    Good piece Nat. There’s a couple of problems. 1. People don’t like new housing in their neighborhoods. This is sad, because a community for me is the sum of its people, not the type of houses that are there. 2. Even if we build a couple of new affordable housing complexes, with 50 or even 100 units, that is hardly ‘job done’. Not if there are 1,900 people on an affordable housing waiting list, and countless more who can’t find a home in their price range. It’s a start, but it’s really just nibbling at the problem. And forget about COAH. The solution to housing in Princeton is not going to come from COAH. 50% inclusionary zoning? A fine idea, but it just drives up the cost of market-rate units.

    A real solution requires the market to do the work for us, and that means relying on developers to build homes that people can afford. They don’t do that right now, because our housing market is so regulated that profit is maximized by building luxury units. Building market-rate affordable housing is impossible under current zoning regs. We should be talking to developers and saying ‘what kind of a home could you build and sell for $300K?’ Then, adjust zoning to make that possible. This approach requires seeing developers as a partner in solving a problem, and not some Grendel-esque force that wants to destroy our town. We have to recognize what a real solution would look like, or else, housing prices will track higher, driving up the cost of living, and forcing people out of the state.

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