Age level for ‘senior’ housing is another Princeton difference

By Nick Norlen, Staff Writer
   Nearly 15 years ago, Eleanor Angoff started an effort, which grew into a group — the Coalition for Senior Housing in Princeton — to provide a place for people like her, older Princeton residents living in single-family homes, to downsize.
   After 10 years of fruitless attempts, she finally had to make the move herself, settling at the Stonebridge at Montgomery senior community, in Montgomery Township.
   ”At that time, it was 200 independent units,” she said of Stonebridge, “150 were from Princeton. They all have their own stories. They wanted to downsize and there was no place to go in Princeton.”
   It’s that exodus — call it the senior drain — of longtime residents, who have worked and volunteered in the community, but who can no longer afford or maintain their homes, that has for years compelled Princeton officials to attempt to provide senior housing.
   In the last decade, that effort has resulted in the adoption of senior overlay zones and even the approval of age-restricted housing developments.
   But nothing has been built.
   So what makes Princeton so different than the nearby municipalities that boast multiple senior housing communities?
   A survey of age-restricted housing built in Lawrence, Montgomery, West Windsor and Plainsboro townships revealed only two facilities with the age restriction of 62-and-over — the limit mandated by Princeton’s senior overlay zones.
   One, Brookshire, in Lawrence, is a three-story building with 117 apartments, but is federally subsidized, according to Zoning Officer James Parvesse.
   The other is Stonebridge — where Ms. Angoff lives.
   The rest — approximately a dozen different developments in those four municipalities — are for residents 55 and over, the minimum age level allowed by the state’s Fair Housing Act.
   In those municipalities, approximately a half dozen more developments in different stages of their approval or construction processes propose the same 55-and-over age limit.
   Although the Morgan Estates project planned for Bunn Drive in Princeton Township proposed a 55-and-over age limit — contingent on a site plan review — only part of the plan was approved by the zoning board, which stalled the project and led to a still-pending lawsuit that was announced by the site owner in August.
   Enter J. Robert Hillier.
   Approximately a week before the lawsuit was announced, the prominent local architect and developer surprised some members of the Township Committee by proposing another senior housing project on a different Bunn Drive plot, the Lowe tract.
   Though only a tentative concept, Mr. Hillier’s plan called for building on less than half the land that would have been developed under a project proposed by the developer K. Hovnanian that was approved but later abandoned by the developer in 2005, reportedly because of the state of the housing market.
   Mr. Hillier had one condition: that the zoning overlay ordinance be changed to permit an age restriction of 55-and-over, rather than the current 62-and-over mandate.
   Doing so, he has claimed, is the only way to make the project economically feasible.
   Mr. Hillier has even brought his marketing consultant before the Township Committee to show statistics detailing how the units would sell more quickly if they could be marketed to the broader age group.
   Comments from local experts seem to support his case — or at least indicate that 55-and-over projects far outnumber those restricted to residents seven or more years older.
   Richard Reading, of Richard Reading & Associates, a Princeton consulting firm that provides demographic, financial, and community impact data to developers, said he has worked “for almost every builder in the state,” including Mr. Hillier on a past, unrelated project in New Hope, Pa.
   He said he could only recall two 62-and-over projects in New Jersey — and one was the never-realized Hovnanian plan on Bunn Drive.
   ”I’m only aware of a limited number of communities who have gone beyond the Fair Housing Act 55 limit,” he said, noting that most municipalities view their seniors as “financial and intellectual resources” that should be retained.
   And developers have good reason for pursuing the 55-and-over limit, he said.
   ”As you raise the age limit, you reduce the number of prospective buyers,” he said, echoing Mr. Hillier’s argument. “It is a significant differential between the size of the market, between 55 and 62.”
   James Hughes agreed.
   As dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, Mr. Hughes researches regional housing market dynamics, and demographic, income and employment changes in the state and regional economies.
   Currently, “the 800-pound gorilla in the housing market is the maturing baby boom generation,” he said, noting that its oldest members are 62.
   ”So why would you exclude that market?” he said.
   Though Mr. Reading said many seniors have the luxury of deferring their downsizing until the market is favorable, he said he believes many older Princetonians are ready to make that move.
   ”There’s a huge void here and there is a fairly large population that is looking for some smaller, more affordable housing,” he said.
   Another real estate consultant, Jeffrey Otteau of the Otteau Valuation Group in East Brunswick, couldn’t comment on the situation because of a conflict — he’s a consultant for Mr. Hillier on the proposed senior housing project, and is under a confidentiality agreement.
   According to its Web site, Mr. Otteau’s firm offers appraisal and consulting services including market analysis, project feasibility, demographic trends, and project valuation — all things developers want to know well before breaking ground, according to Township Zoning Board President Carlos Rodrigues.
   ”Real estate people will look at comparable projects in the region and see how they’re performing and whether they have the same features,” he said. “That’s the kind of gymnastics that developers go through.”
   Mr. Rodrigues is a past president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association and is currently the vice president and New Jersey director of the Regional Plan Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life and the economic competitiveness of the region.
   While he acknowledged that lowering the age restriction to 55-and-over would “expand the market,” he said the change comes with a question: “If you make that threshold low enough, is that housing really going to meet the quote-unquote senior citizen demand?”
   Nevertheless, Mr. Reading said 55-and-over units will be easier for seniors to eventually sell.
   And Ms. Angoff said seniors don’t care whether housing is restricted to 55- or 62-year-olds.
   ”Usually 55-year-olds still have children in college — they’re not ready to move,” she said. “If it makes it easier for the builder, then there’s nothing wrong with it.”
   According to Mr. Hughes, lowering the age restriction “should be relatively benign for the municipality, unless the municipality really wants housing targeted for senior citizens.”
   Still, he added, “If you’re not bringing in any school children, that makes it a very fiscally attractive ratable.”
   Both points were among the numerous questions raised during the public debate that has accompanied the Township Committee’s discussion of an ordinance that, among other things, would amend the age restriction to 55-and-over for all residents — a more stringent mandate than required by the state, which requires only one resident to be 55 or older.
   In December, the Township Committee narrowly voted to table the ordinance for even further consideration after some members urged a greater balance between the desire for senior housing and the potential environmental impact of building on the Princeton Ridge.
   However, members of the committee appeared to reach a consensus on the outstanding issues of the proposed ordinance later in the year, and are expected to re-introduce a revised ordinance soon.
   Its introduction will likely be met with opposition by the many residents — and members of local and regional environmental organizations, including the Princeton Environmental Commission — who have expressed opposition to any development of the ridge.
   Referring to it as “environmentally sensitive,” opponents have said that it is home to endangered species and that single family homes nearby are already plagued with flooding that originates in the area.
   But Regional Planning Director Lee Solow — who noted that portions of the ridge have already been developed with mostly single family homes — has said that even if the senior overlay zone were rescinded, the site would still be zoned for office development.
   Ms. Angoff said those who have called for the township to find another location for senior housing don’t realize the history behind the struggle to find that niche in Princeton.
   ”The thing is that every time that something came up for market rate senior housing, it was a fuss,” she said. “There were four or five places that were supposed to go through. It is happening again.”
   Township resident Roz Denard agreed.
   A former Township Committee member, Ms. Denard is a senior citizen who still lives in a Princeton home with a master bedroom on the first floor and who said she doesn’t feel the need to downsize.
   But many of her peers don’t have that luxury, she said, and that’s why she’s still fighting for senior housing in Princeton.
   ”I’m not doing this for myself. This is something the community needs,” she said. “We’ve been working on it for 15 years. I think it’s high time we got a site.”
   Though she moved away, Ms. Angoff is not giving up.
   ”There are a lot of others like me. My whole life had been in Princeton, and I was hoping to continue,” she said. “There’s no question there’s a whole generation that is younger than I am, but ready to downsize. And they want to stay in Princeton.”
   ”That’s me,” said Township resident Pei Hsiang, “and many of my friends.”
   Ms. Hsiang said she was ready to downsize into the Hovnanian development, and is now on Mr. Hillier’s list.
   ”I’ve been here since 1972. My son was born here and my kids went to school year, and I’ve always volunteered at the schools,” she said. “I worked in Princeton. My friends are here. My whole community is here. And I don’t want to move out.”
   But eventually, she admitted, she might have to.
   ”I’m 71 right now. By 75 I need to be out of here while I still can. The only other possibility is to look around,” she said. “But if I have no other choice, that’s what I’ll have to do — leave Princeton, which would be very sad.”