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Affordable Housing Has a Future, But the Question Is: How to Find It?

Matthew Hersh

As New Jersey sets into motion new laws indicating a change in policy on supplying affordable housing, the entire Princeton community has begun to comprehend the obligations it has in front of it.

New Jersey's Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) announced in 2004 that it had prepared changes to ensure more affordable housing throughout the state and as such, all 566 New Jersey municipalities would be in the position to interpret and implement the new standards, largely through an education campaign for residents and developers alike.

That campaign descended on the Princeton Public Library last Wednesday as Princeton Community Housing (PCH), an advocate and provider of affordable housing in Princeton, hosted a panel discussion on the new COAH regulations.

COAH's "third round" policy on affordable housing indicates a significant departure from its predecessor, "Mount Laurel II," which calculated municipal housing requirements by population, employment, and economic conditions.

Under the the third round policy, the rules follow a so-called "growth share" approach that links the actual production of affordable housing with municipal development and growth. COAH's aim is to produce more affordable housing by stipulating that all growth-related construction should generate an obligation to provide low- to moderate-income residential units.

But the need for affordable housing is not simply a means to fulfill requirements set by the state. Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, said that an aggressive pursuit of affordable housing was a way to establish more equitable, mixed communities, arguing that metropolitan areas with poor, segregated central cities do worse than metropolitan areas with more diverse, integrated areas.

"Everyone is better off in metropolitan areas that have lower levels of class and racial segregation," he said. "It's not only a moral point of view, it's a practical and economical point of view."

Prof. Massey described a "spatial mismatch," or a disparity, between the location of jobs and the residences of employees. Essentially, Prof. Massey said that because a large portion of the U.S. population commutes to work, a single unit of increase of Gross Domestic Product causes a larger share of its income to be spent on fuel, putting the U.S. at a "disadvantage" with Europe and Japan. "Increasingly, the jobs are being created in places other than those where people are still living, which requires ever-lengthening journeys to work, and it drives up our fuel costs," he said, predicting an imminent end to the "cheap gasoline era."

Under COAH's new regulations, one affordable unit must be provided for every eight, market rate, residential units. For the non-residential component of the rules, for every 25 jobs created, one affordable unit needs to be created. COAH provides a formula to determine how many jobs are created based on square-footage.

"[COAH] believes this is more consistent with the market rate growth and sound land use plan," said Melissa Orson, a COAH -lawyer, adding that the -Borough and Township had fulfilled the affordable housing requirements decreed under Mount Laurel II.

But the new rules would likely place a burden on the municipalities with large institutions or businesses which have expansion plans, like Princeton University, or even University Medical Center at Princeton, in the unlikely event that the hospital would have to expand its facilities on site rather than find a new home outside of town. However, municipalities can arrange for a regional contribution agreement, or an RCA, that allows for up to 50 percent of a municipality's growth share obligation to be transferred to another municipality. Between 1987 and 1999, for example, Princeton Township sent 23 units to other municipalities per the COAH requirements. But the new rules could pose a potential problem for the Borough, as the University has several large scale projects in the works, including the 270,000-square-foot Whitman College between Baker Rink and Dillon Gymnasium, and the 88,000-square-foot Peter B. Lewis Library at the corner of Ivy Lane and Washington Road.

According to Pam Hersh, director of the University's office of Community and State Affairs, many new structures, including new laboratories, should not account for as much of a housing obligation because they do not necessarily generate new jobs or foot traffic. "We are building huge buildings ‹ lots of square footage ‹ and most of that square footage will produce few new employees."

Ms. Hersh added that a "clean lab," 4,000 square feet in size, could feasibly be empty for most of the time. "There are buildings on our campus ‹ that when categorized as regular office buildings under the COAH regulations would produce 200 employees ‹ that, in fact, would produce one new employee. The Borough can't possibly accommodate that kind of affordable housing growth based on the type of square-footage we're building."

COAH's Ms. Orson said that those objections "were discussed at great length," but that there needed to be some sort of "consistency" when it came to how the rules dictate housing requirements.

Ms. Orson did seem to leave the issue open-ended, however, saying that "changes would obviously have to be made" if the situation were to be reconsidered.

"I think the mindset was that we have to be consistent and that it balances out in the most part ‹ but we're certainly cognizant of the issues," Ms. Orson said.

Panelist Alan Mallach, research director of the National Housing Institute, emphasized that while census forecasts do not indicate a large influx of residents in the next 10 years, Princeton's housing obligations will increase. Working as the director of Housing and Development for Trenton throughout the 1990s, Mr. Mallach said that while the population of the city declined, his office produced over 1,000 units of affordable housing. "There will be growth, and it's important to plan for it."

He said municipalities need to "capture" opportunities for affordable housing. He suggested that developers could "deed" over parts of its acquired land to the municipality, which would in turn convey that land to an organization like PCH for affordable housing.

Mr. Mallach also suggested more integration of residential and nonresidential development. "I think it's a shame we don't do more of this in the United States," he said. "Instead of having land that became an office park, it would be nice if they were mixed," adding that facilities like the Princeton Shopping Center should be redeveloped into mixed use facilities.

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