Princeton Community Housing (PCH) offers affordable housing at four major sites in Princeton: Griggs Farm and Princeton Community Village, at the north end of town, and Elm Court and Harriet Bryan House, which are both age-restricted and located in the Western Section. By operating these income-restricted communities, PCH opens the housing market in Princeton to many people and families who would otherwise be priced out of the area. This makes Princeton a fairer, more diverse community, and enables moderate-income workers to live in town instead of having to commute to Princeton from other places.
Princeton is lucky to benefit from these communities, which operate thanks to the continued efforts of dedicated PCH staff. These properties also required substantial effort to get funding and approval in the first place, and would not exist were it not for the immense efforts of people in past decades who have gone the distance for open, affordable housing. In many cases, PCH had to persuade objectors in the Princeton community who expressed concerns about the scope of their plans. Princeton’s zoning laws, which strongly favor single family homes, have been used in the past by opponents of these developments to obstruct construction of affordable housing. Here is a quote from the New York Times in 1982, at the time of the proposed construction of the Elm Court development, which provides for elderly and disabled residents:
Opponents contend that their protests do not reflect an insensitivity toward the elderly. ”I don’t think that I’m any less sympathetic toward the elderly or the handicapped just because I think the zoning law should not be changed,” said Marian Cullen, a Princeton resident. ”I think it’s for the protection of the whole community to keep the laws as they are.”
Further development of affordable housing, at what is now known as the ‘Harriet Bryan House’, led to a legal fight in 2001 involving local residents and the Central Jersey Sierra Club. PCH won the case in early 2002, enabling the plan to move to the next stage.
Despite the hard work and perseverance of affordable housing advocates in the past, there is one unresolved issue about affordable housing in Princeton. All four PCH sites are located outside the downtown area, away from the stores and main activity centers. Here are the walking times, calculated using Google Maps, from each development to Palmer Square: (* indicates senior housing):
- Griggs Farm – 1 hour, 2 mins
- Princeton Community Village – 49 mins
- Elm Court*- 26 mins
- Harriet Bryan House* – 26 mins
It’s not impossible to walk from PCH properties to town, but it is quite far. Some residents can ride a bike, but most are dependent on some form of motorized transport. Owning a car is expensive, so residents are often dependent on not-particularly-frequent NJ transit and ‘FreeB’ bus service. To the credit of PCH, they have always tried to provide appropriate transit options for their residents.
Having affordable housing on the edge of town was never the intention. Princeton Community Housing tried hard to bring affordable units right to the center of town. But it is hard to balance protracted zoning disputes with time-sensitive federal and state affordable housing grants. At least one proposal to bring affordable housing to the downtown area collapsed as Borough residents hesitated over redeveloping a downtown parking lot. Land is usually easier to come by outside the downtown area, and although having the space to build is just the first challenge to overcome, this has been an important factor in determining where Princeton’s affordable housing has ended up.
The lack of affordable housing in the downtown is worth remembering when considering the current proposal to build apartments on the old Princeton Hospital Site. The current proposal for development of the site at Witherspoon St would see a 280 unit apartment complex constructed by AvalonBay. 20% of these units (56 units) would be affordable units, thereby bringing a significant amount of affordable housing to a site just 10 mins walk from Palmer Square. This would undoubtedly be a very attractive opportunity to residents in Princeton’s affordable units, because they would have the option of a new apartment close to stores and on an existing bus line.
Some Princeton residents do not feel comfortable with affordable housing being funded with private dollars. Princeton Community Housing is a 501c(3) non-profit organization, whereas AvalonBay is a private corporation, listed on the New York Stock Exchange and a member of the s&P 500. However, as funding for affordable housing is increasingly hard to come by, increasing Princeton’s portfolio of affordable options in the future will depend on us being able to make deals with private developers like AvalonBay. AvalonBay’s primary motive will always be making money for its shareholders. However, New Jersey law ensures that affordable units in a private development are at an equivalent standard to market-rate units. AvalonBay cannot take advantage of residents in their affordable units, nor is there any indication that they would try to. According to Jon Walsh, of the New Jersey non-profit ‘Fair Share Housing Center‘:
“Some developers, they come in and use the Mount Laurel doctrine, and then they try to get out of providing the affordable units,” he said. “To my knowledge, AvalonBay hasn’t done that. They have provided the units and they have a pretty good record.”
As with past developments that have brought affordable housing to Princeton, certain residents have opposed the hospital site project and even used legal means to try to prevent it moving forward. Others have questioned whether affordable units are appropriately integrated in the new development, even though site plans show affordable units interspersed throughout the development, on every floor and facing every direction. Although there are legitimate questions to be asked of the AvalonBay development, we should not lose sight a benefit that has been difficult to reach in recent decades: walkable, affordable housing, right in downtown Princeton.