Rental Assistance and University Reopening Among Topics of Council
By Anne Levin
A series of reports on various topics were the focus of Princeton Council’s virtual meeting Monday night, December 14. The governing body heard presentations on a collaborative program from Housing Initiatives of Princeton (HIP) to provide rental assistance to those faced with eviction as a result of the pandemic, reopening plans for Princeton University in the coming semester, and a new racial equity impact assessment toolkit developed by the Civil Rights Commission.
Council also passed several resolutions, including one approving a new voluntary contribution agreement with Princeton University effective for the next two years.
An initial round of funding that was administered with grants from the Princeton University Relief Fund and the COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Fund (CERF) of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, providing relief for rental and utility payments, was in place from March through August. With the help of a community development block grant, a seven-member committee from HIP including bilingual, Spanish-speaking representatives, has come up with a plan for funding for three consecutive months. HIP was a member of CERF.
“There is an eviction moratorium, but that eventually will be lifted,” said Carol Golden, HIP chair. “The goal is for people to not be in such a deep hole at that time that they can never catch up.”
Retired Judge Philip Carchman, who worked on the committee with some retired attorneys, said they developed a mediation program to try to help spread the money as widely as possible, keeping the tenants safe and making sure landlords are not without funds. “The idea was to try to develop a mediation program as a methodology for landlords and tenants to resolve the issue of outstanding rent,” he said, adding, “The objective was to reach an accord for a three-month period, allowing the landlord to be satisfied and the tenants to remain.”
In the program which Carchman described as “safe and straightforward,” each mediation will involve a landlord and his or her representative; a tenant with counsel; an interpreter if necessary; a technical person to run the virtual meeting; and a mediator. A test session — in which Carchman served as mediator with a landlord, tenant, and volunteer interpreter — resulted in a successful
resolution, he said.
Carchman has communicated with the Mercer County Bar Association on the project, and they have agreed to send letters to members who might volunteer as mediators or counsel. “We see this as a program that can work, and we are hoping we will have the volunteers necessary to make it work,” he said.
The program is meant to be held for people before any tenancy actions are filed in court. “The pre-filing aspect is important,” said Golden. “Because if they have even a pre-filing on their record, it’s like an albatross around their neck.”
Following the presentation, Council voted to approve a resolution authorizing the agreement with HIP in connection with the community development block grant, which is a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In a report detailing Princeton University’s plans to welcome back undergraduates for the spring semester, Treby Williams, executive vice president of the University, said that the school closely monitored other colleges and universities that have brought students back, opened a testing lab on campus, and initiated several strict protocols before making the decision.
The University normally has 5,300 undergraduates. This year, there are 4,600 enrolled. About 3,400 have indicated they want to return to campus. There will be one student per sleeping space, and some dormitories have been reserved for isolation if needed. Students will start to arrive on January 15, in a phased method to complete quarantines.
All students will be tested on arrival, and then, following CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines, will either isolate or quarantine, Williams said. “They will have to sign a social contract in which they agree to testing and restrictions to travel, gatherings, and no guests in dorms. We are making it really clear to students that coming back to campus is only if they can follow these responsibilities. If they are not able to abide by these restrictions, they should stay home and take courses remotely, which they can.”
There will be a spring break of only three days, with travel restrictions in place. The expectation is that students will not leave the campus during that time. There are two websites with extensive information about the plan: covid.princeton.edu and spring21.princeton.edu.
Members of Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission have been working for several months on a racial equity toolkit with members of the organization Not in Our Town. The work is a follow-up to Council’s resolution last June declaring racism a public health crisis. The Commission looked at models from other cities in developing the toolkit, and has tested it by applying it to existing Princeton policies, ordinances, and a job application. It works, but can continue to evolve and change.
The group recommends that the toolkit be adopted in the development “of all new and revised policies, programs, HR processes, and budget line items such as projects or programs prior to those items making it into the budget,” reads their report. “We also recommend that the toolkit be used to examine existing programs, policies, and processes that are currently in use through a racial equity lens.”
It is essential to consult with the impacted community to solicit impact, “particularly historically marginalized communities, in the development of programs and policies,” the report continues. Once the toolkit is approved by Council, it should be piloted with a municipal department or commission, the report concludes.
The new voluntary contribution agreement with Princeton University, approved at the meeting, is effective through December 3, 2022. A two-year extension built largely off of the existing agreement that has been in place for the past seven years, it provides for cash contributions of $3,619,200 for calendar year 2021, and $3,764,000 for calendar year 2022. These amounts reflect a 4 percent annual increase each year.
Also, the University will contribute $250,000 toward the construction of a new storage facility for the Department of Public Works equipment storage, and contributions to support the municipality’s fire protection efforts, including a paid-staff program, of $550,000 for calendar year 2020, and $150,000 per year for calendar years 2021 and 2022.