Princeton Council spent over an hour at their meeting on Monday night night debating whether to convert 5 affordable rentals at ‘The Waxwood’ condominium to ‘for-sale’ units. Council members couldn’t agree about whether it is appropriate – and the bigger question about what to do about Princeton’s unmet affordable housing need is also going unanswered.
The building that is now the ‘Waxwood’ condominium was at one time a school for African-American kids, and subsequently became a nursing home. Local architect Bob Hillier, who was born and raised in Princeton, purchased the building and carefully restored it and converted it to residential use. As part of the development, he rented a number of units at a below-market rate, on the understanding that they would be sold to low-income buyers in the future. Hillier is now proposing to make the units for-rent forever. He says that renting works well for the existing tenants, and that forcing them to buy their units would be a hardship:
“Even with a subsidy, it is very unlikely that any of the Foundation Unit tenants, or others eligible to occupy the units, could afford to buy these units. As a comparison, between the mortgage payments, taxes and condo fees, the monthly cost of ownership would average about $2,900, compared to the current average rent of $2,150.”
In other words, existing renters would potentially lose their homes if the Developer Agreement was strictly applied- because they would not be able to afford to buy them. The majority of tenants wrote to Council to support protecting the units as affordable rentals. Despite the risk of these tenants losing their homes, some Council members, such as Bernie Miller, favored a rigid adherence to the existing Developer Agreement. In the neighborhood, somebody has even put up posters saying that the proposal to keep the units as rental-only is ‘The New Jim Crow’.
Although it is appropriate for the town to carefully consider what to do with these 5 affordable units, it is worth remembering that the town has a waiting list of about 1,900 people waiting for affordable housing. While our local Council members are hemming and hawing about rentals at the Waxwood, hundreds of people are going unhoused. The scandal is not that Mr Hillier is trying to renege on his developers agreement. On the contrary, Mr Hillier is one of the few people who has actually done something to provide affordable housing. By redeveloping the Waxwood, he provided high-quality affordable rentals, and by way of thanks, some local residents are implying that he is a racist. That is pretty much disgraceful.
The real scandal is that Council is not doing anything to provide more affordable homes for the hundreds of people who are languishing on the waiting list. By making a big drama out of what is happening at the Waxwood, they are distracting attention from the bigger picture, which is the town’s utter failure to provide more affordable options.
Local pundits might also want to reconsider insulting people like Mr Hillier, one of the few people to create significant numbers of affordable housing units in Princeton. Is is very unlikely that we will solve the affordability problem in Princeton by implying that developers of affordable housing are greedy or racist. That approach is more likely to put off anybody who might be inclined to take a risk on a project that involves affordable housing.
Watch Princeton Council debate the ‘Waxwood’ affordable units at this link. (The relevant discussion begins at 1:34:30:.)