At Princeton Council last week, Council President Bernie Miller presented an interim report on the work of the ‘Affordable Housing Task Force’. This task force was set up in September 2014, as the town was considering whether to use two newly-acquired pieces of land to build new affordable housing. Miller, along with Council members Crumiller and Liverman are involved in the task force, along with representatives of Princeton’s Affordable Housing agencies and several citizen volunteers. How are they getting on?
Miller reported that the Task Force was attempting to generate a list of all publicly-owned sites that could potentially be used to add affordable housing. They initially assembled a list of 280 potential properties, but had narrowed the list down to just 44 sites. These sites include a mixture of muncipal-owned land, School Board land, the old Princeton First Aid and Rescue Service (PFARS) site, and certain University properties, most notably the parking lot on Franklin Avenue, which is being gifted to the town.
The Task Force has not made any recommendations as of yet, but it looks like it is on track to provide a useful list of sites that could be developed as either affordable housing, or a mixture of market-rate and affordable housing. This list would be useful in helping the town consider possibilities to address the shortage of affordable homes for the 1,900 people currently on affordable housing waiting lists.
On the other hand, the final list is based on a number of assumptions that may unnecessarily limit the range of solutions that Princeton could use to relieve the housing crisis. First, by only considering publicly-owned properties, the Task Force is excluding the vast majority of land. Privately-owned land could be used to produce affordable housing (and housing that is affordable), especially if zoning laws were amended to make it easier to construct homes at lower price points. It is not hard to find underused sites around Princeton that could be used for this purpose.
Second, many potential sites were excluded because they are ‘already developed’ or are ‘parking lots in the Central Business District’. But sites that are already developed could be redeveloped to include affordable housing. It is also possible to add homes above parking lots. For example, the outdated Chambers Street garage could be redeveloped with three floors of housing above a renovated parking deck. Surface lots could be used to build structured parking along with affordable housing, or other valuable uses.
The final list of sites, even if it is not as comprehensive as it could be, will still be useful in directing current efforts to create housing. There will always be questions about the scope of any task force, and the broader the scope, the greater the risk of delay and endless discussion. That would not be appropriate faced with the current affordability crisis. In future, however, Princeton should remember that there are many ways of solving a problem, and we have the greatest chance of reaching a good conclusion if we consider every potential approach.
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