The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighbors’ Association heard last Saturday from affordable housing advocates, as the issue of Princeton’s housing imbalance came up once more. Surprisingly, Princeton has a number of income-restricted homes available to buy, but there have been no takers! Homes in Washington Oaks are available from $81,216.00 – $117,807.00, and in Griggs Farm for a similar rate. Why is nobody buying them? Is it because they don’t know about them? Or does it reflect the situation of working people, who can’t commit to even a reasonably-priced unit like this? Many people are renting who might do better trying to buy their own place. And the situation for renters is dire. Market rates are through the roof, and the waiting list for affordable units is measured in years. How many units would it take to make a substantial difference?
Based on the current number of families in affordable housing in Princeton, and the current wait-list, the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighbors heard that 900 units would reasonably be required to get the backlog under control. This is far in excess of the number of units that Princeton currently has in the pipeline. Even taking into account large projects such as Princeton University’s Merwick-Stanworth redevelopment, which has an affordable set-aside, Princeton will still be left with a huge shortage of housing for working people who are least able to afford the ever-increasing rates of the local property market. Princeton will need to look for more developments on a large scale if we are going to maintain a socio-economically diverse community in town.
That is not to say that everybody is in favor of large developments. Also in attendance at the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighbors’ Meeting were representatives of the Association For Planning At The Hospital Site, who have challenged the construction of the AvalonBay apartment complex at the old Princeton Hospital Site. The AvalonBay redevelopment will include 56 new affordable housing units. A major complaint of the APHS has been the scale of the apartment development; but the relatively high density allows for an increased number of affordable units. If the redevelopment was down-sized, that would mean proportionally fewer affordable units, even though more units are desperately required.
One alternative, proposed by WJNA Chair and former Princeton Township Mayor Jim Floyd, is to require a higher percentage of affordable units from developers. A figure of 20% was previously agreed as the required amount of affordable housing at the hospital site, but could it be higher for future developments- for example- 30% affordable units??
The percentage undoubtedly could be higher. With suitable planning, Princeton could require any percentage that the town thought would be helpful. But if we require a high percentage of affordable units, that inevitably makes the project less attractive to a developer. The solution is to offer a density bonus in the zoning- that is, to give the developer a reason to invest in affordable housing. For example, a development with 20 affordable units and 20 market-rate units may not allow a developer to make their expected profit (and as we all know, profit is the primary driver for most developers). On the other hand, a developer might be inclined to build 20 affordable units if they could also add 60 market-rate units. Density bonuses have regularly been used like this to encourage developers to add affordable housing in other municipalities.
Another essential consideration for making housing affordable is to move beyond the obsession with a figure for the percentage of Council For Affordable Housing-Approved affordable units, which are income restricted- and focus instead on making housing affordable for all sections of the community. An insistence that we should maximize income-restricted housing punishes middle-class workers, who may not be making a lot of money, but who are earning enough to be disqualified from income-restricted housing. This demographic- the people who keep our town running- need market-rate affordable housing, and that only comes by loosening Princeton’s highly-restrictive ordinances on home construction. Ultimately, this is where Princeton has to make a choice: we can’t expect to solve 2014 housing imbalances with 1960s-era homebuilding practices.
Do you think Princeton is doing enough to make housing affordable for regular people? Is this something that Princeton should care about anyway? Have your say in the comments section below.
For more information on affordable housing in Princeton, readers should attend the round table discussion sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Princeton Community Housing this coming Monday, May 5, 7 p.m. at the main meeting room in Monument Hall (former Borough Hall). Come hear from those who are actually providing affordable housing in Princeton.