Princeton Public Library Forum Offers Solutions on Housing

Participants in the first Housing Justice Panel at Princeton Public Library on December 10, 2022 (left to right): Douglas Massey, Ellora Derenoncourt, Thomas Sugrue, Jacob William Faber.

The question of how to provide housing for all members of the community is an important question for Princeton’s ongoing Master Plan rewrite, which made it very timely for Princeton Public Library to host a forum on housing justice last month. Organized by Kim Dorman, the Library’s Community Engagement Coordinator, in coordination with several local community groups, the session offered two panels with experts who considered the questions of “how did the housing crisis arise?” and “what can we do to fix it?” The panels were each just one hour long, but the quality of the presenations was very high.

Introducing the first panel, Prof. Thomas Sogrue of New York University observed that access to high-quality housing was a huge factor in life outcomes, and a driver of inter-generational wealth. However, just 43% of African-American adults are homeowners in the United States, compared to 74% of white people. Rental housing is also an issue, with a substantial number of renters paying half of their total income in rent. Prof. Jacob Faber noted that housing policies at the national and local level have contributed to exclusion. People’s homes are both a place to live and, for many people, an investment. This creates a strong incentive for people to exclude lower-income people from their communities and favor policies that drive up the value of their own property, contributing to the extraction of wealth from lower-income communities that has been noted by Jacob Riis, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin.

Prof. Ellora Derenoncourt, of Princeton University, described how the present challenges with housing came about in part because of the response to the movement of African American people from the post-Reconstruction South to the industrial states of the northern USA in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Through this Great Migration, Black people had the opportunity to greatly increase their wealth by moving away from poorer rural states to cities with jobs in productive factories. They were unable to turn this increase in income into generational wealth however, because policies were enacted to try to restrict African Americans to certain neighborhoods. These policies include the widespread use of racially-restrictive covenants, and exclusionary zoning, such as minimum lot sizes and restrictions on building.

Exclusionary zoning was also identified as a problem by Prof. Douglas Massey, also of Princeton University. “Restrictive density zoning is one of the prime drivers of segregation in the United States,” he said. His work, from his book, “Climbing Mount Laurel“, showed that although some residents have fears about lower-income people moving into their neighborhood, past experience shows that these fears are not realized when new housing is built.

Matt Mleczko of Princeton University chaired the second panel, which he began by asking “what policies and practices should we be focusing on to promote housing justice in the near- and long-term? Jeanne-Pierre Brutus, senior counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice spoke of the propsed “Fair Appraisal Law” that is working through New Jersey state government. Mr. Brutus also expressed support for the proposed New Jersey Reparations Task Force, which would make recommendations on potential financial payments to African Americans to make up for past discrimination. (Setting up this task force has also been endorsed by Princeton Council.)

Sara Bronin, of Cornell University, suggested that local governments could make a difference on housing by revising and updating local zoning rules. As a founder of “Desegragate Connecticut“, Bronin has studied many local zoning codes, and found examples such as one town that required three parking spaces for a single studio apartment. Such rules, along with things like minimum lot sizes and height limits, make it harder to build housing that is desperately needed by low- and midde-class people. She noted that California has recently taken state-level action to make it easier to build in towns with restrictive zoning laws, and expressed the hope that other states would follow.

Peter Kasabach, Executive Director of NJ Future, agreed that zoning changes are important to incentivize creation of new homes, especially in walkable areas, but pointed out that it is important to pair such changes with tools to ensure affordability, such as mandatory inclusion of a proportion of affordable units in new developments.

To wrap up the session, Matt Mleczko asked the panelists to consider possible ways to help distressed cities like Trenton, which have been disproportionately affected by past policy decisions and capital flight. Mr. Brutus suggested ‘community land trusts’, as an alternative to homeownership, which keeps properties in public ownership while letting residents build equity. A pilot program is operating in Newark, but similar approaches could work statewide. Mr. Kasabach said that for low-income households, affordable housing meant that towns and the state should aim to remove properties from the housing market, and make them available as social housing, without the goal of wealth creation. He also encouraged programs to encourage people of diverse incomes to live in disinvested communities.

The conversation will continue at a second housing forum at Princeton Public Library this coming Saturday, January 21. Matt Mleczko will return to lead a discussion on “What Can We Do Together?”, and will be joined by Marina Rubina, who will talk on the theme of “Building Livable, Lovable Density”. TAP Into Princeton Editor Richard Rein will open the session on behalf of Princeton Future, with a talk on “Building A Common Vocabulary Of Housing Types”. The discussion will no doubt be relevant to Princeton’s ongoing Master Plan re-write. It will run from 9 a.m. – 12 noon in the Princeton Library Community Room, and participants can register to participate by Zoom at this link.

The Princeton Public Library has set up a ‘Resource Page’, with a carefully-curated list of books and online materials for people who are interested in learning more about housing: Link to Library Housing Resource Page.

Videos from the December 10 Housing Justice Forum at Princeton Public Library:

This entry was posted in Affordability, Community, Events, People, planning, Princeton, Zoning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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