Affordable housing is topic No. 1 for Borough Council

With diminishing federal and state funds, a search for meeting a growing need.

By: Jennifer Potash
   After years of talking around the edges of an affordable-housing policy, the Princeton Borough Council, prompted by Mayor Joseph O’Neill, is pledging to offer some solutions by year’s end.
   When the Borough Council held its first meeting of the new year, the mayor asked the governing body to set some goals for 2004 and the borough’s affordable-housing policy topped the list. The council spent about an hour talking about the status of affordable units in the borough and brainstorming about increasing the inventory at its Feb. 10 meeting.
   Mayor O’Neill, while running for office last year, released a position paper evaluating affordable housing in Princeton Borough. As a member of the Borough Council for three years, Mayor O’Neill had served as a liaison to the Affordable Housing Board.
   Given the constraints of finding land that is both affordable and available, the borough will need other approaches to add affordable housing, the mayor said. And the need for low- and moderate-income housing has not abated — it would take 15 years to place all the people on the Borough’s Housing Authority waiting list, he said.
   With diminishing federal funds for state and local affordable-housing programs the borough must carefully plan how to leverage its affordable-housing trust fund to meet to meet fair-share housing obligations and other needs such as affordable senior housing, Mayor O’Neill said.
   The borough ought to continue its low-interest loan program that assists first-time homebuyers and current owners in refurbishing their homes, the mayor said. Also the borough’s subsidy for low-income units in the Nassau HKT development at Spring and Tulane streets, and in Palmer Square’s proposed Hulfish North development, represent creative uses of the trust fund, Mayor O’Neill said.
   The mayor also advocates reform for an unintended problem stemming from the policy of including the affordable units with market-rate units in a single development. Since neither property taxes nor condominium fees are capped, homeowners in affordable units may struggle to pay property taxes and condominium owners may face liens after failing to pay association fees.
   "Though lower-income families are liable for only a percentage of the charge that their more affluent neighbors pay, there is no cap on the absolute amount of condo fees," Mayor O’Neill said.
   Therefore, in a condominium association, if the owners of market-rate units, who outnumber affordable-unit owners, demand more amenities like mowing the grass twice a month or repainting the exteriors every three years instead of five, the lower-income residents cannot afford the increases, Mayor O’Neill said.
   And homeowners’ associations are quick to file liens and rarely make exceptions for hard-luck cases, he said.
   So one use of borough funds might be a subsidy for condominium fees for affordable-unit residents, he said.
   Some of Mr. O’Neill’s suggestions, including redeveloping semi-detached units along Franklin Avenue, drew little support from council members.
   "It’s clearly an inefficient use of very valuable land," said Mayor O’Neill, who suggested a larger affordable-housing development for the site.
   But Council President Mildred Trotman said the John-Witherspoon neighborhood is already too densely populated.
   "As much as I would like to add more affordable housing … it drains our finances in so many ways, such as the schools, and the land isn’t there," she said.
   The borough will run into density problems in most other neighborhoods, said Councilman David Goldfarb.
   The only place with excess land would be the Western section and rezoning to permit additional housing would not likely be acceptable to anyone, Mr. Goldfarb said.
   Mayor O’Neill’s call for expanding the loan-assistance programs stuck a responsive chord with Councilman Roger Martindell.
   For a decade, Mr. Martindell has urged the borough to adopt a reverse-mortgage program where the borough helps a financially strapped resident keep his or her home with the provision that when the resident dies or moves, the property is sold to the borough for inclusion in the affordable-housing program.
   "It would benefit the people living in Princeton and yield more units," Mr. Martindell said.
   Councilwoman Wendy Benchley said she worries families would be reluctant to participate in this program, fearing the borough would repossess their homes. She suggested the borough work with local banks and affordable-housing groups to develop loan programs to help lower-income families stay in Princeton.
   While he thinks the preliminary council discussions are a positive sign, Mr. Martindell said he would like the council to direct the borough staff to draft a program so the governing body can move beyond brainstorming.
   Mr. Martindell said he opposes the borough getting involved in construction of new units, a task he said the governing body is not well-suited to undertake.
   The renewed focus on affordable housing is welcome, said Sidney Willis, chairman of the borough’s Affordable Housing Board.
   A new approach is needed as the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, consisting of fees from developers, has been depleted following the construction of affordable units at Shirley Court and Maclean Street, Mr. Willis said.
   The fund currently has about $500,000, Mr. Goldfarb said.
   The advisory board is developing a proposal for the acquisition of existing units, Mr. Willis said.