Princeton’s ‘Town Topics’ newspaper is running a great series about housing in Princeton, which this week focused on Mount Lucas Drive, at the northern end of the former Township. Here, many old houses from the 1950s – 1960s are being demolished and replaced with larger, new-build homes that usually sell for a greatly-increased price. This is a trend which is seen all over town. The ‘Topics’ report featured a local resident- a self-described ‘diehard conservative’- who cheerfully endorsed the changes in the neighborhood, based on his strong belief in property rights. But replacing old homes with ‘McMansions’ is rarely an expression of conservative values. It is instead a result of government interference in its most blatant form.
In the mid-20th century, the land around Mt Lucas Drive was fields, belonging to wealthy local farmers. Those fields were divided into suburban streets where middle-class families could live (OK, maybe upper-middle class people, but you didn’t need over a million dollars to come to the table). In 2014, instead of further sub-division, which would allow the market demand for housing to be met, development is instead entirely guided by municipal regulations. The homes that are built are not what people most want to buy, but are instead what conforms to municipal rules. And the municipal zoning code says that big houses are A-OK.
When governments try to interfere with markets, the results are usually fairly terrible. Think of the Revel casino project in Atlantic City, where New Jersey pols, including Chris Christie, decided to ‘invest’ taxpayer dollars. The $2.4 billion project will close this weekend. More generally, government-imposed regulations on markets tend to have perverse effects- just look at what is happening in Venezuela, where a left-wing administration has enacted price controls guaranteeing low prices for gas, but meaning that people have to make a line for hours to buy toilet paper.
Housing is no exception, and a conservative might suggest that local government should refrain from micro-managing markets. In Princeton we see the opposite. Process-zoners try to regulate paradise into existence, neglecting the fact that the best parts of Princeton- such as Nassau Street, the Tree Streets area, and the Witherspoon-John neighborhood- were built before zoning was enacted. What happens now is that lower-cost housing is effectively prohibited by zoning regulations, guaranteeing that developers will make their money by building housing for the richest demographic. Princeton zoning is therefore in cahoots with developers, standing in the way of the free market and acting as a barrier to middle-class families who might aspire to live in the town.
At Mount Lucas, the big houses are rising because zoning makes other kinds of housing unlawful. There is no rationale, either from a right-wing or left-wing perspective, to support this. Not only is it a denial of property rights; it also drives up the average cost of property in Princeton. More generally, a Smart Growth approach to development is endorsed by commentators from both sides of the political spectrum. It’s time for Princeton to enact meaningful reform to zoning that will allow the appropriate development for the 21st century.
Is it right for Princeton officials s to set standards that mean that only rich people can afford to buy in Princeton? Have times changed, so that middle class people should ‘fuggedaboutit’ when it comes to living in the Mount Lucas Drive area? Is this OK? Let us know in the comments section below...