Shirley Bishop, an expert in affordable housing, advised Princeton Council last week that the town was not in imminent danger of a “builder’s remedy” law suit. She was speaking in light of a NJ Supreme Court ruling that gave the Superior Court control of affordable housing quotas. But the town must update the ‘Housing Element’ of the community Masterplan by November, and it may be necessary to increase the number of planned affordable dwellings.
Ms Bishop’s testimony to Council was well reported in the ‘Princeton Packet‘. Princeton, having made efforts to add affordable housing at sites like the old hospital site, Merwick-Stanworth site, and at Copperwood, is likely to be successful in getting the protection of the court from potential suits from developers who might use the Supreme Court ruling to build more housing. Municipalities that cannot persuade a judge that they have made substantive efforts to add affordable housing risk having their zoning overturned, allowing developers to build new housing without adhering to local zoning.
In the medium term, Ms Bishop advised that Princeton will have to update the community Housing Element, which is the section of the Masterplan dedicated to discussing which contains the community’s plan for adding affordable homes . Right now, the town has two plans for affordable housing- one from the old Borough, and one from the Township. Local officials will have to move fast to get a new, consolidated Housing Element ready in time for November, when the court will again test whether Princeton’s efforts to meet our ‘fair share’ of affordable housing are adequate.
The problem is, we don’t know what our ‘fair share’ is. Previously, Princeton made plans based on a formula called ‘Growth Share’, which was ruled to be unconstitutional by the NJ Supreme Court in 2013. Under this plan, the Township envisaged adding 168 new units, and the Borough had planned to add 178 units (see this 473-page document from the municipal website for details). The new Housing Element will likely need to include more units than this, considering Growth Share was judged to be inadequate. The Fair Share Housing Center has suggested that Princeton ought to add 888 new affordable housing units. That would be a big increase compared to current plans, and would require a step change in the rate of construction of affordable housing in town.
Frankly, the requirement to update the Housing Element is an opportunity. Last year, Princeton elected officials expressed outrage that potential COAH housing obligations were too low. It is estimated that 1,900 people are on waiting lists for affordable housing in Princeton. In updating the Housing Element, Princeton will have a chance to make plans that fit the scale of the problem, and give our elected officials the chance to show their commitment to solving the affordability issue.
Watch Shirley Bishop’s address Council on March 23, 2015 via Princeon Community TV. Her testimony starts at 1:33:31.