A recent report from U.S.1 newspaper focused on how walkable housing is the hottest trend in Princeton-area real estate. After speaking to several local realtors, the authors noted, as we have pointed out previously, that housing close to stores and amenities is particularly prized in 2013. According to Kim Ward Bacso of River Valley Realty, who is quoted in the U.S1 article:
“The Gen Y’s want bars, shops, and restaurants, not the two-acre colonials they grew up in,”
It’s not just “Gen Y’s“. Pretty much all of us value having good stuff nearby. In the second half of the twentieth century there was a move towards living in suburbs, but the disadvantages of this form of urban planning have long since become apparent. Are you fed up of long commutes in traffic? Fed up looking for parking? Wondering why there isn’t a little store in your neighborhood where you can easily pick up some milk or a New York Times? These problems come from the low-density suburban model that was favored by 1950s-1980s-era zoning practices, which still persist around the Princeton area.
Understandably, many people now place a premium on living close to downtown stores and amenities. As Kim Ward Busco puts it:
“Town centers are the bullseye areas that are hot, whereas the surrounding concentric area has more inventory and fewer buyers. Buyers have continued interest in a property’s distance to coffee shops, restaurants, and shops.”
This trend isn’t something unique to Princeton. Across the country, people are increasingly placing more value on homes that don’t require car use to access amenities. In many cases, even smaller, older homes can command high prices, based on their in-town locations.
Despite this, U.S.1 seem determined to bury the lede, arguing in their headline that walkable housing is hot “in some circles (but not all)”. What are their reasons for hedging like this? It is partly based on what Suzanne Dustin of the Gloria Nilson office in Princeton Junction had to say:
“the area that is “on fire” right now is West Windsor, where buyers are attracted first by the schools, then by the train station, and also by the housing stock that is no more than 15 to 20 years old”
Nothing that Dustin says contradicts the idea that walkability is desirable. Yes, West Windsor is a great place to live, with great schools, great houses and great transport links. But it would be even more attractive to home-buyers if it added something that is currently lacking: walkable housing! Add together West Windsor’s existing good points and the proven desirability of walkability and you have a recipe for a white hot real estate market. Walkable housing could add character to the area around Princeton Junction rail station, replacing ugly surface parking lots with highly-prized housing and potentially reduce commuter traffic. The popularity of walkable housing only underscore the utter folly of not building the long-planned West Windsor Transit Village, which would provide exactly the type of housing that is most sought-after by local home-buyers.
Neither is there any evidence for U.S1’s other idea: that the market for walkable housing is ‘cyclical’ and eventually demand for ‘the big house in the manicured lot’ will return. Given a simple choice, people will always go for a bigger house than a smaller house, but if the big house comes with a big commute, evidence suggests that people prefer a smaller home closer to town. A demand for walkable housing is a return to traditional values, where people lived close by their workplace instead of driving from a suburb. This traditional pattern is clearly evident when we look at ‘old’ cities like Boston or San Franciso, which are built on a compact, higher-density form in central areas where jobs are prevalent. There is no ‘cycle’ about whether a short commute is good or not. People always like a short commute. In the late 20th century, an expanding road network and increased access to cars meant that people didn’t have to make a choice between a short commute and a big house. Sprawl and traffic are now making people ask what their biggest priority is, and they are choosing the same thing that was most important through most of Homo sapiens history: living close to friends, and close to the goods and services that make our lives fun.