New Jersey’s Council On Affordable Housing recently released updated figures for how many income-restricted homes should be provided in every municipality in the Garden State. Princeton was told that it didn’t need to build any new income-restricted housing, even though there are 2,000 people on the waiting list there. Meanwhile, Hopewell Township, a semi-rural area that borders Princeton to the west, was told to build up to 1,500 new homes. That is likely to represent a huge difference in a community which currently has just 17,000 residents. Hundreds of new homes will have to be built in the township, which is one of the last remaining areas in Central Jersey with large amounts of green space. Is this what we want?
The so-called ‘Third Round’ COAH rules factor in the amount of ‘developable land’ in a municipality in deciding their obligation to add income-restricted housing. This rule is troublesome, because it makes it more likely that areas of New Jersey where there is remaining green space become targets for development, whereas in principle, we would like to preserve remaining undeveloped areas. That shouldn’t mean that Hopewell Twp gets a pass on providing affordable housing, but they should contribute in a different way.
Rural municipalities should be able to pay for some portion of their affordable housing needs to be built in other areas, where there is more employment. That should absolutely not mean that affordable housing gets ‘dumped’ in Trenton or other urban poverty sinks. This practice was popular in the past, and is quite rightly forbidden nowadays. But affordable housing should be concentrated in areas where there are lots of jobs. That means places like Princeton, where there is not only a need but a desire to add more income-restricted housing housing. Developments in in areas where there are jobs helps limit the urban growth area, protecting green spaces, and also benefits those who live in COAH housing.
As an example, imagine you’re a line chef in Princeton. You earn $12 an hour, 20 hours a week, you live in a squalid private apartment with five of your friends, and ride your bike to work. You qualify for an income-restricted apartment, for which you’ll pay an affordable percentage of your salary. But the apartment is on a field in Hopewell (perhaps the Marshall’s Corner / Kootronic site- pictured above- which has been the focus of controversial redevelopment efforts for years). If you live there, you’re going to have to buy a car. Can you afford a car? Probably not, but somebody will probably give you a sketchy credit line anyway. Now you live far from where you work, far from your friends, and you have to hunt for a second job to pay for the car and insurance. And Princeton gets one extra car driver, adding to traffic congestion and the scramble for parking.
It would make more sense if you could live in an income-restricted apartment in Princeton instead. Using transfer payments from places like Hopewell, more COAH housing could be added in Princeton, where the jobs are. There are dozens of sites in Princeton, including brownfield and greyfield sites that could be redeveloped to add housing. This would allow more people to live close to where they work. Increased housing density in defined centers like Princeton also makes transit more effective, as it is costly and ineffective to run buses around low-density areas like Hopewell Township.
State regulations on income-restricted housing should operate to promote Smart Growth instead of sprawl. The present regulations act to destroy green spaces (bad) and distribute homes far away from employment centers (also bad). If COAH is going to use developable land as a metric in determining requirements for income-restricted housing, it also creates a perverse incentive for municipalities to zone remaining farmland for large-lot, car-dependent luxury homes (just like Princeton did in the 80s and 1990s.) COAH should provide a mechanism that promotes affordability while solving these problems.
Please leave your thoughts about COAH and the new rules below. Note- comments posted here will not go to COAH- to leave official comments, follow the instructions available here. The Council On Affordable Housing is taking public comment until this coming Friday, August 1.