Affordable housing remains a major ongoing topic for discussion in Princeton. Where should we build it? What should it look like? And how should it be paid for? Stepping up to the moment, the Princeton Jewish Center co-hosted the second in a series of panel discussions on housing earlier this month. The session was entitled “Affordable Housing in a Just World: Basics and Beyond”, and featured presentations from three participants with distinct perspectives on the process of planning and building affordable housing.
Faith organizations have historically had an important role in the provision of affordable housing in Princeton. In 1967, the Princeton Jewish Center was among a number of religious groups that co-sponsored the formation of Princeton Community Housing. The “Housing In A Just World” session was planned by three local synagogues: Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, Har Sinai Temple in Pennington, and The Jewish Center in Princeton. The moderator was Peter Buchsbaum, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge and Mayor of West Amwell Twp, NJ, who has acted as ‘court master’ in six Mount Laurel cases, in which towns have aimed to agree on the appropriate amount of affordable housing to build.
Alice Small, President of the non-profit Princeton Community Housing Development Corporation, was the first speaker. Princeton Community Housing is the largest operator of affordable housing in Princeton, managing 466 homes for over 1,000 residents. The current Princeton Community Housing project to add 25 new affordable homes at Princeton Community Village (see this link for a full description at walkableprinceton.com) has taken 15 years so far, and Ms Small described the effort as “a bureaucratic nightmare”, with particular challenges arising from land acquisition and finding financing. At the present time, the project is moving forward as part of the town of Princeton’s “Mt Laurel” housing settlement, with the town providing part of the funding.
Forty units had originally been planned for the project, but this was downsized to 25 units. The site plan had to be approved by about 10 different municipal, regional, state and non-governmental boards and agencies. Needed funding from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency was held up because of miscommunications about the necessary paperwork and a dispute about a Verizon cell tower on the site. Ms. Small noted that bureaucrats often have little incentive to move affordable housing projects forward, so housing operators can face an arduous process to get new housing built. However, she mentioned that the struggle is worth it, to lift people up, and to help make Princeton a diverse community.
The next speaker, Mitch Newman, came from a private sector background, as senior vice president at building firm Lennar, where he oversees development of mixed-income housing projects. Newman described how private sector firms aim to speed development proposals through settlements with host communities, in which the site plan should be presented up front in clear detail. Projects with a mixture of market-rate and affordable homes are an important part of Lennar’s portfolio in New Jersey. In these developments, the standard is that affordable units are designed and built to an equivalent standard as market-rate homes. The company often takes on a non-profit partner to help operate the affordable component of mixed-income developments.
Newman agreed that it is very challenging to get government approval for developments involving affordable homes, and that it is not unusual for projects to require 2-6 years of planning meetings and public consultation to get to the finish line. In recent years, public meetings have involved remote video conference technology, which Newman believes increases public participation, but also distractions. He noted that in one meeting, members of the public were visibly drinking beer and wine during an online hearing, and another meeting was disrupted by a local resident who refused to mute himself, and who also had a screaming monkey in a cage in the background. The meeting continued with the monkey shrieking throughout.
Diane Ciccone was the final speaker for the evening. As a member of the West Windsor Township Council, she was able to present the perspective of elected officials. West Windsor is currently working to implement a state housing settlement that will bring 1,500 new homes. Council Member Ciccone explained that the town’s policy is that affordable housing should be mixed with market-rate housing, as opposed to being concentrated in 100%-affordable communities. She noted that there is regular opposition to new affordable homes in West Windsor, which she believes is a mixture of people who are worried that the schools might be overwhelmed, and people who are outright opposed to homes for people of lower incomes.
In the Q&A session, there was discussion about whether it is acceptable for affordable homes to be separated from market-rate homes in mixed-income developments. In general, there is a preference for the units to be mixed together, but Mitch Newman noted that when there is a mixture of for-sale and rental homes, it can be challenging to implement full integration and manage the rentals efficiently. The issue of transportation to affordable housing developments also came up, based on the risk that potential tenants might not be able to access housing opportunities. However both Alice Small and Mitch Newman noted that people at all income levels in New Jersey typically have access to cars. The possibility that ‘accessory dwelling units’ might contribute to housing affordability in New Jersey was also raised, and Alice Small said that “the jury is out” about how helpful they will be.
The session as book-ended by readings and prayers from Rabbi Adena Blum, of Congregation Beth Chaim, and Rabbi Jordan Goldson, of the Har Sinai Temple. This was the second in the series on affordable housing, and the moderator, Peter Buchsbaum, held out the prospect of a third session to discuss many questions that were not addressed owing to lack of time. With over 90 participants online, these panels are emerging as one of the most informative and participatory forums for discussing affordable housing in Princeton.
Link to first intercongregational affordable housing session, from 10/29/2021: “Affordable Housing In New Jersey: Lessons From Mt Laurel“
Video from the latest session, of 1/09/2021 is below: