We love living in Princeton, but there are a few issues, and a high tax rate is certainly one of them! Municipal taxes, county taxes, school board taxes- it all adds up to a pretty hefty load on local residents. As we have noted before, compact walkable development in Princeton, in addition to providing a lot of customers to support downtown businesses, could generate a large amount of tax revenue. Earlier this week, we posted data from Sarasota County, Florida, which showed that taller buildings bring in substantially more tax revenue than low-rise residential development. We suggested that mid-rise buildings, built within the height of existing buildings around Palmer Square offer the best balance for providing much-needed tax relief while preserving the historic character of Princeton.
But it would be pointless to add new buildings if they ended up costing Princeton more money than they brought in. Put simply, if residents in new developments used town services more than existing residents, the town could end up running a loss even after collecting lots of new tax! A key concern is school use. In Princeton, about 50% of our property taxes go to supporting our excellent public school system. We cherish our school system, and would not want it to be over-whelmed with excessive numbers of new students. So how many students could we expect from new compact walkable development?
Fortunately, this question has come up many times before. Around the country, school boards have historically tried to find ways to estimate how many new school places they will need as towns grow and shrink. This is a vital part of their jobs, because over-building or under-building schools risks either wasting money or compromising the educational environment. Let’s consider a study from Montgomery County, Maryland, which looked at the question of how many kids live in apartment buildings. Montgomery County is an extremely affluent and highly-educated suburb of Washington DC. In 2010, their public school system won a Presidential achievement award. Montgomery County public schools regularly win other awards for ‘Best High Schools’, over-perform in national rankings, and have particular success among minority students. In short, you might expect families to move across the state and bunch up in a cramped apartment just to be able to get in to these schools.
So is that what happens? No. The data clearly show that families with kids don’t often live in apartments. As the table below, taken from the report, shows, single-family homes have an average of 1.0 children per residential unit (that is, one kid per house). By contrast, 1-bedroom apartments have just 0.012 students per residential units. That means that if you had one hundred 1-bedroom apartments, you would expect to add just one new school-age kid!
With 2-bedroom apartments, the statistics change: they have on average 0.283 students per household. That means one hundred two-bedroom apartments would add 28 new students. With 3-bedroom apartments, the ratio is even higher. This tells us that families with kids hate living in one-bedroom apartments- something that is unlikely to surprise anybody with children! These statistics also tell us that even when great public schools are available, apartment buildings are very unlikely to strain local schools. In fact, the difference in occupancy is so great that 65 single family homes would add more students to the local school system than an apartment building with 300 units.
The study in Montgomery County is very definitely not an outlier. If we look at another, more recent study, based on data from New England, we see similar numbers:
This study estimates that just 11% of 2-bedroom apartment homes have school-aged children. It’s hardly any at all. Even if every child from a new apartment complex registered with Princeton Public Schools (instead of the Hun School, Princeton French-American School or any of a number of other local educational establishments), the difference would hardly be noticed.
Finally, in 2003, the Citizens Housing and Planning Association of Boston, MA, commissioned the report “Housing the Commonwealth’s School-Age Children The Implications of Multi-Family Housing Development for Municipal and School Expenditures”. The report is a carefully-researched, 95-page document, and speaks directly to the issue of how many school-age kids live in apartment buildings. Here is one of the key findings:
Large, high-density multi-family developments appear to be less attractive to families with children than low-rise, moderately dense developments with fewer units per building.
Furthermore, the report speaks specifically of new construction:
Our case studies and federal census data are consistent in this regard: in most multi-family developments, whether condominiums or apartments, a majority of the residents do not have school-age children. The case studies underscore that newer developments are particularly “child proof” because most of them are limited to one- and two-bedroom units. Even those with three- bedroom units have so few that the average number of children per unit remains well below that of single-family homes.
In summary, three separate surveys from other parts of the country- including areas with excellent schools- clearly show that residential apartment buildings (or condos) are not major users of schools. The most ‘costly’ type of development for a town is low-rise, single-family homes, because these provide lower tax returns and are far more likely to require use of expensive public schools. Judging new development on a purely profit basis should not be the ultimate goal of town planning. Families need homes too. But if you want to maximize tax returns, or offset the anticipated 2% increase in the Princeton Schools Budget (which will bring a $148 tax hike for the average Princeton homeowner), then apartment developments would help a lot.
If families don’t live in apartment buildings, who does? In Princeton, with the university close by, we could expect a significant number of graduate students and post-doctoral research staff to take advantage of the availability of apartments. These young academics place a high value on living close to the University, but also are reluctant to buy a home because they know that their careers are likely to take them elsewhere in the country within a few years. Apartments are also typically snapped up by young professionals, who want walkable amenities without the hassle of looking after a full house and yard. Divorced middle-aged people are typical apartment-dwellers, and for better or worse this is a pretty large demographic. And of course, ’empty-nesters’, that is, couples whose own children have moved out and are looking to down-size while remaining close to all the good things in Princeton. Apartments offer homes for all these childless groups, who could live in walking distance to town and support the vibrant community that we love.