Op-Ed: On Affordable Housing, Some Officials Stuck Back in the Fifties

Stuart Sendell | August 6, 2018 | Opinion
Politicians may try to impede affordable housing in New Jersey, but they can’t stop market forces that favor towns with mass transportation over isolated suburbs

Stuart Sendell
A group of politicians recently held hearings in Trenton to once again try and stop the implementation of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on the need for affordable housing.

I see several ironies in this last-ditch effort to “protect” the few remaining municipalities that haven’t settled with the Fair Share Housing Center. The first irony is that the market is trying to tell them that these units are needed by their own seniors/empty nesters and youth who are still living at home well after reaching the age of consent. Two-career families need smaller lots and houses requiring less time and cost to maintain. They want to be near transportation and walkable town centers. They want good school systems that also reflect the world they, and particularly their children, are and will be living in.

The era of the flight to far-flung large sprawling suburban lots that require hours of driving to get to work are over. The school districts (see Mendham Township) are shrinking while denser towns with centers serviced by mass transportation are growing.

A few municipal officials are still trying to protect a lifestyle that is fading from view.

Let me describe how real estate, over time, adapts to the way we live. Otto Kahn, one of the wealthiest Americans, in 1898 built a summer estate on 260 acres in what is now Morris Township. It was near the train line the Vanderbilts and Dodges built to let them escape New York City during the stifling summer months. When Otto left, no one could or would buy his expensive home/estate, so it became first a medical sanitarium and then at the start of suburbanization was rezoned in 1942 as the corporate headquarters of Allied Chemical and later Honeywell Corporation. They, like Otto, became the biggest ratable and every year appealed their taxes to keep the municipality on its toes.

Isolated suburban towns shrinking

If you can believe it, the state gave Honeywell a subsidy to move six miles west to Morris Plains along with the need for more affordable housing for its workers. The Morris Township Honeywell site is now a much smaller office park and is home to new condominiums/townhouses built by K. Hovnanian. So, in 100-plus years a single-family house became a corporate headquarters and now a mixed-use site including attached, denser housing development mostly attracting empty nesters, i.e. the original occupiers of “suburbia.” This site and the nearby Moore Estate (the first contentious “builder remedy” development over 30 years ago) are now the highest ratable in town, far exceeding Honeywell at its peak. Empty nesters don’t have children unless they return — as unfortunately some have — so the feared rising school costs were more than offset by the taxes on the market-rate units.

So, all the fears were, as now in Trenton, misplaced and the truth is that housing values didn’t drop, schools didn’t explode, and ratables have actually gone up.

The greatest irony is that the most isolated suburban towns without public transportation and with large lots and homes are now shrinking along with their school enrollments because market forces are returning people to more town-center focused communities.

The horse has left the barn. The new tax law may be the last nail. Suburban sprawl has had its generation-and-a-half and now we are contracting. If you want to see the value of your house appreciate, move closer to the train tracks. Who would have guessed that in 1950 or 1960? Unfortunately, some municipal officials and their Trenton representatives think it is still 1950.

Last night I sat on the porch of my three-story townhouse with elevator across from the public Victory Park in downtown Rumson, NJ. The town only allowed my unit because two COAH units were included in the small seven-unit complex. With the breeze off the Navesink River I watched as the local boys and girls gathered to play night basketball. Many nights they invite “urban youth” to come and play or in some cases help with training advice. As the games begin, rap music is playing and the gulf between the children’s internet lives and their parents gets wider than ever. They will leave their 96 percent-plus white school systems to go off to college and work that will reflect the diverse country we live in and that they now only see on their smart phones. What a country!

This is not an Us versus Them issue. It is a Us versus Us issue.