Seven years ago, Princeton University demolished graduate student accommodation at the ‘Butler Tract’, off South Harrison St (map). Since then, the large site has sat empty, with occasional use as a surface parking lot. A petition initiated recently by local resident Matt Mleczko aims to change that. The petition, which has been signed by over 100 people, calls on Princeton University to donate the land at the Butler Tract to a new ‘Community Land Trust‘, which would construct permanently-affordable housing on the site. This housing would be prioritized for Black residents, and for University staff who are struggling to afford housing. Mr. Mleczko has written two columns for ‘The Daily Princetonian’ (linked below), which further expand on his vision for the Butler Tract. We caught up with him to discuss the idea some more…
Walkable Princeton: Matt, in your first piece published in ‘The Daily Princetonian’, you write that redeveloping the Butler Tract is a way that Princeton University could advance racial justice, or even make a form of ‘reparations’. Do you think that the University has a responsibility to provide remedies for the struggles that Black residents of Princeton experience with housing?
Matt Mleczko: We as a community, not just the University, bear a responsibility to make amends for the decades of systematic and institutional discrimination specifically targeted at Black people that has resulted in – among many other injustices – the housing inequity that we tolerate today. However, this proposal is directed at the University, in part because of its past and ongoing role in the problem, but also because of its demonstrated capacity and stated desire to be a part of the solution. We ultimately need a community institution to step up, stop making excuses, and prove that bold action on housing equity is possible and replicable. Princeton University is uniquely positioned to do this. By acting decisively on this proposal, it could have a tremendously positive and long-lasting impact on housing equity within and beyond Princeton.
Walkable Princeton: You suggest that affordable housing at the Butler Tract should be constructed and managed by a ‘Community Land Trust’. What is that? And how is it different from regular affordable housing?
Matt Mleczko: A community land trust (CLT) is a form of shared-equity housing in which a nonprofit owns land, thereby keeping it and the resulting housing built on it affordable in perpetuity. Homeowners in a CLT own their structure and lease their lot. Should they want to sell their house, they keep some of the equity, but share the rest with the CLT, enabling another qualifying household to live in the community – hence, the shared-equity concept. Our municipality operates a very similar affordable home ownership program, so the concept is not new or untested. CLTs are a flexible housing model – they can accommodate a range of housing tenures and incomes. They are a crucial mechanism for stabilizing communities or promoting diversity where housing prices are rapidly appreciating. Given the emphasis on community ownership, they are also a mechanism to develop cohesive, socially integrated neighborhoods. Anyone interested in learning more should visit groundedsolutions.org
Walkable Princeton: What would you say to near residents in the Riverside neighborhood, who might be skeptical about new construction at the Butler Tract?
Matt Mleczko: I’ve already spoken with several Riverside residents who are enthusiastic about this proposal, but to those who may be skeptical, imagine the opportunity before us. Simply put, despite some recent progress, our restrictive zoning laws and land use decisions are limiting our ability to supply enough housing for people who want to live here. This holds us back as a community in so many ways, but especially because it undermines racial, ethnic, and class diversity. What if, instead of defaulting to resistance to change, we focused on what we as a community stand to gain by making room for others and sharing the incredible opportunity that living in Princeton entails? What if we decided to prioritize racial justice by sharing our neighborhoods and enabling housing opportunities that have been systematically denied to many Black households? Imagine the example we set for other communities and the legacy we leave behind by doing this.
Links to Matt Mleczko’s series “The obligation to act: how Princeton University can promote housing justice” at the ‘Daily Princetonian:
Matt Mleczko is a doctoral candidate in Population Studies and Social Policy at Princeton University. He is a graduate student researcher at the Eviction Lab and a member of the Princeton Affordable Housing Board. The opinions expressed here reflect Matt’s views alone and not those of organizations with which he is affiliated.