Princeton: Who Can Afford It?

The House Finch, native to California, is a relative newcomer in Princeton.

House Finches such as this one at a Princeton feeder have lived in Princeton since about 1950.

The Princeton area has been home to many different people through the years. The Lenni Lenape people, after centuries of living around Princeton, were displaced by Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, with subsequent settlement by Quakers and other groups. The population has grown and in 2013, consolidated Princeton includes a diverse group of people, some of whom have lived here for many years, while others have moved to the area more recently.

Who will live in Princeton in the future? As we observed yesterday, property prices in Princeton are now significantly higher than in other surrounding municipalities. The obvious consequence of this is that the people most likely to move to Princeton will be wealthier than those moving to surrounding areas. Former Mayor Marvin Reed once described a class of Princeton home-buyers as ‘two-bonus couples‘ because they used proceeds from annual bonuses paid on their high-paying city jobs to buy homes in Princeton. The flip side of this is that people with more regular jobs-teachers, drivers, hairdressers, store assistants, and even many staff of Princeton University-are going to find it tougher to afford to live in Princeton.

Are we happy with this? From one perspective, we could argue that the market is equally open to everybody, all you have to do is save enough cash, and you are as able as anyone else to live in Princeton. Nobody is ‘entitled’ to a Princeton home. What’s more, there ARE homes available in Princeton at relatively low prices, and if it’s important for you to live in Princeton, these houses are relatively affordable, though likely smaller and less-equipped than houses at the same price point in surrounding towns.

From another perspective, we could argue that it is bad for everybody that there is such a huge difference in the cost of housing in Princeton versus surrounding towns. The huge differential means that people are acting entirely reasonably to live outside of Princeton where property prices are lower. Why would they over-extend themselves with mortgage debt? Taking on extra mortgage debt was, after all, a contributor to the 2008 crash and the agony of foreclosure that followed. But this means that the population in Princeton is increasingly trending towards being a community of rich folk, the stereotypical ‘Affluent Suburb’ described by George Sternlieb in his 1971 book.

As far back as 1986, gentrification was described as ‘galloping’ in Princeton. In 2013, Princeton neighborhoods are changing in character as a result of stratospheric housing prices. At its worst, this trend could be seen as supporting the division of our society into geographically-separated ‘tribes’ of rich people and people of moderate income, producing a segregated society that doesn’t work well for anybody. And finally, having much of Princeton’s daily workforce commute by car into the downtown area is indisputably a major cause of the traffic that plagues our region.

Another consideration with expensive Princeton housing is the effect of the so-called ‘Mount Laurel Doctrine‘, a legal interpretation of the New Jersey state constitution that states that communities have an obligation to provide some component of affordable housing so that people of moderate income have the option of living there. This commitment is enshrined in the 1985 Fair Housing Act and has been enforced by the Council on Affordable Housing. As a result of a court case in 1990 (‘Witherspoon-Jacskon Development Corporation vs Borough of Princeton), Princeton promised to give fair consideration to the development of affordable housing.

Princeton has made some effort to provide housing for low-to-moderate income people, notably through the activities of Princeton Community Housing. Why then is the Princeton Property Premium still so large? Princeton lacks large tracts of undeveloped land that could be used to build housing. To deal with this issue, new affordable housing has been proposed as part of projects such as the redevelopment of the former Princeton hospital site on Witherspoon Street. This redevelopment would include 20% affordable housing units. However, the project has been vigorously protested by a number of local residents. While these residents have a right to have their voices heard about the redevelopment, we have to ask ourselves what message it sends when the largest project for providing affordable housing in Princeton for years is met with demonstrators marching in the street with placards? The redevelopment plan is now stalled as the intended developer is taking Princeton to court in a dispute over whether their plan conformed to Princeton’s zoning ordinances. Embarrassingly for Princeton, we are now also defending ourselves against the Fair Share Housing Center, a group that advocates for affordable housing, and which has joined in the court case against Princeton.

At Walkable Princeton, we believe that restrictive zoning ordinances have distorted the Princeton property market contributing significantly to the current high cost of Princeton houses and apartments. Regulatory barriers to the provision of new housing units have prevented the construction of homes for people that would like to live in Princeton. Even setting aside our legal obligations to provide affordable housing, it is in our own interests to allow more people to make their home here, because it will increase walkability, instead of requiring people to drive to their jobs in Princeton. It will also make our society more inclusive, as people from all walks of life would be able live here, and contribute to our special community. We believe that more people deserve at least a shot at making their home in Princeton, a fair shot that is being denied by an artificially-limited housing market. In the future we must be braver about allowing new homes to be built, while keeping the unique character of the town.

This entry was posted in Affordability, Local, Princeton, Real estate, Zoning. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Princeton: Who Can Afford It?

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