New Princeton Zoning Task Force Launches, As Obama Urges Flexibility

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Historic downtown Princeton offers housing choices (click to expand)

This week sees the first public meeting of Princeton’s new ‘Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative’. Consultants hired by the town will make a public presentation, with the aim of creating “strategies, policies, guidelines, and regulations that will shape future home development activities so their outcomes better complement the traditional character and form of Princeton’s residential neighborhoods and streets.” The task force plans “short-term, medium-term, and long-term” changes to local zoning, apparently with the goal of preventing ‘tear-downs’ and ensuring a greater degree of conformity with existing properties. But just as Princeton begins to further ratchet up zoning controls, the Obama White House has released a new policy document, urging looser controls on development. Who’s right?

Princeton planners and politicians are concerned about the increasing numbers of Princeton homes that are being torn down to build ‘McMansion’-style houses. Many local residents are aware of these tear-down/rebuild jobs. The new task force has discovered that an average of 17 homes in Princeton are being knocked down each year:

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Numbers of homes demolished each year, 2005 – 2015, via Princeton Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative (click to expand).

The task force has also revealed whereabouts in town ‘tear-downs’ are taking place:

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Location of single family home demolitions, via Princeton Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative (click to expand).

Faced with the trend of home demolitions, Princeton’s Council and Planning Board seem set to introduce new zoning regulations to limit what can be built in residential areas. These new restrictions would add on to those passed last year, which aimed to target ‘McMansion’ construction. In general, ‘McMansions’ pose two problems: (1) some people think they’re ugly, and (2) they replace less expensive, old homes with more expensive, new ones. We wrote about this issue before. It’s hard to find anybody in Princeton who is a big fan of McMansion-style developments. That said, although they are often described as ‘ugly’, new-build homes can’t be that ugly, because people always buy them, and many of those people are (in my experience) good people.

The problem of affordability is a real one, however. If all Princeton’s old houses are replaced by ‘McMansions’, it will limit who can live in town. That said, at the current rate of about 17 demolitions a year, it will take over 500 years for all existing homes to be replaced. A bigger problem is that existing homes are appreciating in value very quickly. (In 2015 along, house prices jumped 9%). Some people blame this on McMansion construction – but a more likely cause is that Princeton is a prosperous town where lots of people want to live, and there aren’t enough homes. More affluent people can bid up house prices, meaning that people without money are priced out.

Adding further restrictions to development is unlikely to solve this problem. In fact, coincidentally, the Obama White House released a major policy document today, which argues that restrictions on development are the problem, not the solution. To quote:

Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher-paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality” – White House Housing Development Toolkit – Sep 2016

It is not wholly surprising that the Obama White House would issue this new statement. The Chair of the White House Economic Advisors joined Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman earlier this year in warning that zoning restrictions can lead to inequality. People on limited incomes might like to move to Princeton, where there are jobs and good educational opportunities for their kids. But their options are limited by the high cost of housing, leading many people to stay in areas where they have limited opportunities to build wealth, and where their kids are stuck in schools with poorer outcomes. These problems are suffered disproportionately by communities of color and of limited privilege, who are already dealing with historical inequities.

Obama’s new policy document offers solutions: make it easier to construct housing of all types, that can be afforded by people of all means and backgrounds. In practice, this means modernizing housing regulation using the following principles (quoted directly from White House policy document):

  •   Establishing by-right development
  •   Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  •   Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  •   Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  •   Allowing accessory dwelling units
  •   Establishing density bonuses
  •   Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  •   Employing inclusionary zoning
  •   Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  •   Using property tax abatements

The problem with Princeton’s new zoning initiative is that it seems set to go in the opposite direction to that proposed by Obama. Instead of enabling higher-density housing, or streamlining permitting processes, it seems set to make new development more difficult, especially when it is judged to ‘deviate’ from the types of housing built in Princeton in the mid-20th century. Instead of allowing more ‘accessory dwelling units’, the zoning task force may make construction of such units more difficult, through stricter limits on build-able area. To deal with the issues of the mid-21st century – entrenched inequality and climate change – Princeton neighborhoods must be allowed to evolve. Let’s hope that the new task force can allow that too.

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