Do you read the ‘New York Times’? If so, you might have noticed a recent column by Professor David Kirp titled ‘Here Comes The Neighborhood‘. Professor Kirp, who is an expert on how social policy impacts educational outcomes, criticizes suburban New Jersey towns for enacting zoning which has an exclusionary effect. As he puts it:
“Affordable housing is still too rare in suburbia, as zoning laws continue to segregate poor and working-class families.”
The article focuses on a new review co-written by Princeton U. Prof. Douglas Massey about the impact of construction of affordable housing in Mount Laurel, in Burlington County. Local residents and elected officials prevented the affordable housing being built for several decades, arguing that it would create ‘a ghetto in the field’. The former mayor even compared adding affordable housing in the township to grafting a tumor into healthy skin (yuck- but such opinions are still widely available in 2013). Now that the housing has been built, it turns out not to be no problem at all for existing residents. The expected doom did not materialize. As for the new residents in the affordable housing- they have vastly improved career prospects and their children have significantly increased educational outcomes.
There are several lessons here. First, when affluent towns find space in their midst for people of moderate means, it creates great economic opportunity at little cost to the municipality. Giving people a chance to live in towns where there are plenty of jobs and good schools has a much better outcome for society than consigning them to places of limited opportunity (locally, that means Trenton). Second, new housing does not bring the terrible outcomes that people expect- a clear example of ‘impact bias‘- a human trait which leads us to overestimate how future events will affect us.
In Princeton, there is a clear lack of affordable housing (defined broadly to include COAH-units and the low end of the regular real estate market). The effect of our zoning in sustaining this problem is rarely discussed. It should be. Our last masterplan review argued that the Borough and Township “struggle to find land and innovative ways to provide additional affordable housing opportunities while protecting the scale and integrity of existing residential neighborhoods”. This policy justifies restrictive zoning as a necessary evil to protect the integrity of our neighborhoods. But the Mount Holly study demonstrates that new housing has far less impact than what is typically feared. Limiting new housing because of imagined ill effects is therefore a big mistake.
If we are going to lay the basis for a socially diverse and inclusive Princeton, we need to reform our zoning and planning to promote a market in reasonably-priced housing. With most of our land already developed (overwhelmingly with large-lot single family homes which are the hardest for middle-class people to afford), we must aim for the greatest possible number of new units on all available infill sites. These units may not be cheap themselves, but by increasing supply, they will reduce the average expense of housing. When the voices of protest come, we have to remember that the sky usually does not fall when we increase housing options for middle-class and low-income people. By contrast, the positive benefits are proven to be immense.
If we can’t do this, we will be validating Prof. Kirp’s downbeat conclusion about the future of housing opportunity in New Jersey: ‘it’s hard to imagine that the suburban drawbridge will be lowered anytime soon’.
Do you have an idea for how to provide more affordable housing in Princeton? Is it just too bad if people can’t afford to live here? What housing developments in town have been a particular disaster and should never have been built? Let us know in the comments below!