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Martin Luther King, ‘The Least of These,’ Affordable Housing and Princeton

We rightly remember Martin Luther King as a civil rights hero. Increasingly throughout his life, though, King emphasized issues of economic justice, acknowledging that economic justice is
barely distinct from civil rights.

Princeton University Professor Albert Raboteau wrote about King’s economic concerns in an essay in 2011. In his own Nobel lecture, King wrote:

“The time has come for an all-out war against poverty. The rich
nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the
underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed.
Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No person
or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of
these”.”

King’s reference to the least of these is to The Bible’s Matthew 25:40, in which the king replies to a question from the righteous about what they could ever have done for him: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The ethic of supporting the least is not just Christian – there are Jewish antecedents of the king’s command to feed the hungry, lodge the stranger, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and visit the imprisoned – the things that must be done for the least of these – all of which are affirmed in traditional Jewish morning prayers that bless the Lord who gives sight to the blind, clothes the naked, releases the bound, and grants all that I need, among other things.

This week marks the second week of a Mercer County Superior Court proceeding in which Princeton and fellow Mercer County municipalities are seeking to establish their affordable housing obligations under New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) rules, and in the wake of court rulings that COAH has not met its obligations to assign affordable housing commitments to New
Jersey’s local governments.

Princeton officials believe that the rate of new housing developing in Princeton, and the scarcity of land available for new development, make provision of much new affordable housing both fiscally and practically difficult.

There are a lot of different numbers flying around about what Princeton’s obligation to provide new affordable housing should be. Suffice it to say there’s a gap between what the 1,400 or so new units that the Fair Share Housing Center believes are required (with Twitter statements that they’d listen to proposals half that size) and what elected  municipal officials believe is “the right number” – which would be, according to a plan proposed last year, about 446 new units in the coming years.

Acknowledging the complexity of the State’s affordable housing regulations and the slow rate of housing growth in Princeton in recent years, I would make the following points:

●Princeton’s past commitments to affordable housing – a frequent talking point of our elected officials – has nothing to do with present needs or the rectification of the recent decade’s shortfalls. There are no gold stars for past achievement.

●The complexity of the affordable housing issue – real as it may be – is an illegitimate ground for inaction. Civil rights was a “complex” issue, too, as frequently emphasized by its broad-minded opponents.

●Middle-income people who work in Princeton can’t afford to live here, or near here – to say nothing of lower-income people – which has climate-warming impacts that no composting program can overcome, and imposes transportation and time cost burdens on families that can ill afford them. These outcomes belie Princeton’s voters’ and leaders’ stated liberal politics.

●Far from being a burden that is against local interest, accommodating middle- and low-income households would benefit Princetonians in innumerable ways: allowing seniors to age within their own community; children and grandchildren to live nearby;
municipal employees and teachers to live in their own community; and supporting local retailers.

If Princeton has to add housing to meet affordable housing and market affordable housing needs, so be it. The fact that it might be “complex” does not mean either that resistance is right, or even in the municipality’s best interest. The fact that there could be “fiscal implications” is undeniable; citing such implications without any other
reasoning would be a narrow and callous basis for opposing new affordable housing commitments.

There are places in town to accommodate new housing, and ways to provide new housing that is market-affordable, COAH affordable, in character with Princeton’s neighborhoods, and community strengthening.

Princeton should settle its current lawsuit; accept an affordable housing target; accept that we need to catch up on the shortfall of affordable housing delivered locally over the past decade and a half; and dedicate ourselves to meeting these needs.

Even more: a lawsuit of such moral and municipal consequence should be a matter of public discussion much more than it has been to date.

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.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    Mr Bottigheimer is correct. I would love to hear from the government officials who face a host of complex issues, nevertheless, it is their job to prioritize and work on them, find a common ground. Princeton is a wealthy town and what I foresee in the near future is a town of wealthy people only, with no middle class, because no teacher, no administrative assistant, no retail employee, no nurse, no middle class person can actually afford to live in this town the way a middle class person used to live in this country.

  • Sheldon Sturges

    Nat is correct.

    Here are a few additional thoughts about what we might do, over and above whatever the Municipality decides to plan for to meet its Fair Share.

    Can we, together, develop a plan that allows a choice for those who serve the town: a choice to live here at 30% of income.

    Let us consider that we can form a consensus.

    Let us consider that the residents of this town want to continue to be able to live here.

    Let us consider that those who serve our town just might choose to live here!

    Let us consider that we might want to want to build 1000 (!) ‘non-market units’ by 2025 over and above the 50-to-500 affordable units being discussed.

    The question is for me is…

    Q: Could the market be incentivized to accomplish this?

    I submit that if Princeton is to remain an interesting, vibrant and fascinating town, we need a major restructuring of how we plan, finance and encourage the building of residential units.

    The goal is to have a town where all of those who contribute to the well-being of our community have the choice of being able to live here at 30% of their income: teachers, lawn workers and dishwashers, fire volunteers, police, government employees, retired faculties, artists, poets, potters, NGO executives and staffs, young families, families who have lived here for several generations, and many others to be determined.

    For me it is a matter of social justice…

    For you, it might be a matter of sustainability: fewer cars, less traffic.

    For Princeton University, it might be a way to attract and retain faculty and students.

    For all of us, it is also a matter of forging a community vision and developing the community will.

    It is a matter of answering the question:

    What kind of a town do we want to become?

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