AS I SEE IT: The shell game of affordable housing

By Anne Waldron Neumann
On Nov. 24, Princeton’s Council and Planning Board met to hear townspeople’s reactions to a 10-year affordable housing plan presented by Lee Solow, the Planning Board’s planning director. My own reaction was deep disappointment.
The number of affordable housing units each town must add to meet its Mount Laurel obligations will now be determined by New Jersey’s judiciary. What Mr. Solow presented, presumably as directed by mayor and council, was the proposal Princeton will send to State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson.
A Fair Share Housing advocate had already suggested 1,163 new units as Princeton’s affordable-housing obligation through 2025, and a court-appointed consultant suggested 424. Alas, Mr. Solow’s plan chooses the lower number.
In fact, Mr. Solow’s plan includes not 424 housing units, but only 339 units plus 107 “bonus credits” we’ve earned in the past. Of those 339 units, moreover, 154 have already been constructed, including 67 units at Harriet Bryant House, which opened in 2007. Another 120 units are already under construction, including 56 units at AvalonBay and 56 in the university’s Merwick/Stanworth housing.
The 10-year plan envisions only 85 genuinely new affordable units: 40 units added to Princeton Community Village, five (a 20 percent set-aside) of 25 homes on the Franklin Street parking lot, 10 of 50 homes by the Princeton Shopping Center, and 30 of 150 residential units added to commercial buildings along Route 206 near Herrontown Road.
In other words, Mr. Solow’s proposal seems less about adding affordable housing than about surviving Judge Jacobson’s scrutiny. Mr. Solow’s 339 units are “new” because they haven’t yet been counted in meeting Princeton’s Mount Laurel obligations.
Suppose we add those 339 units to Princeton’s 791 older affordable housing units. That’s 1,130 legally-defined affordable units, or 11.3 percent of about 10,000 housing units in Princeton as a whole.
That sounds reasonable. But, unfortunately, of Princeton’s 9,328 actual households in 2013 (the last year I have figures for), 1,461 households (15.7 percent) had incomes below $30,000, while another 1,537 (16.5 percent) had incomes between $30,000 and $60,000. This means that 2,998 Princeton households (32.2 percent) would have (depending on family size) been eligible for state-mandated affordable housing in 2013.
Applications for affordable housing bear out these higher numbers. Though not every applicant for Princeton’s affordable housing lives here, our various affordable-housing authorities have a combined waiting list of some 1,600 distinct applicants. The average waiting time is one-and-a-half to three years.
Meanwhile, after our 2010 property-tax revaluation, property taxes doubled for many Princeton homeowners, especially in lower-income, denser neighborhoods. Princeton’s average home assessment is currently over $800,000, with a 2015 property tax close to $18,000.
One bright side of this dismal picture is that, once Princeton meets its Mount Laurel obligations, it might be legal to offer any additional affordable housing to Princetonians first. Under Mount Laurel, our affordable housing must be marketed not only within Mercer County but also to residents of Ocean and Monmouth counties, which are deemed to fall into the same cost-of-living category as Mercer.
A so-called “Princeton preference,” were it possible, would help ensure that current Princetonians could age in place. Indeed, more land in Princeton (including lower Alexander Street and the Butler Tract) can support affordable housing.
Furthermore, we need not limit the number of affordable housing units on those sites — or on the sites Mr. Solow named — to 20 percent of the whole. If the land is sold to builders to develop, the town could offer zoning benefits in exchange for 50 percent affordable housing. Incentives like tax rebates, fast-track approval, lower parking requirements, and permission for greater density could all help shape future development to our benefit.
Finally, these sites need not be sold to for-profit developers. Council should allow the community time to put together funding so non-profits could develop some of the sites. Then 100 percent of the new housing could be affordable.
On Nov. 24, Princeton Council members stressed that the 339 “new” units (really, 85) were a floor, not a ceiling. I’d feel more confident of reaching a higher ceiling over the next 10 years if the floor wasn’t so very low.
Surely many of us share the Princeton Community Master Plan’s stated goals: to “Provide Princeton’s fair share of affordable housing,” to “Promote, preserve, and enhance Princeton’s unique community life,” and to retain Princeton’s “diversity” in age, income and ethnicity.
Few people change their ethnic identification, but we know that ethnicity determines income more than we would wish. All of us will grow older, however — very much older, I profoundly hope — and our incomes may decrease with retirement. Affordable housing is crucial because, now or later, you and I may need it. 
Anne Waldron Neumann is a Princeton writer and teacher of writing. 