Princeton Settles Affordable Housing Agreement

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | December 20, 2019 | Housing
Fair Share Housing Center plan marks end of a substantial court action
Credit: NJTV News
Princeton was the last municipality in Mercer County to finalize a housing plan.

The settlement of an affordable housing agreement between Princeton and the Fair Share Housing Center marks the end of a substantial court action and inches New Jersey as a whole closer to the end of a long battle over municipal obligations.

Princeton was the last municipality in Mercer County to finalize a housing plan, agreeing to a total obligation of 1,394 homes. But with some of these already constructed — the borough and developers have built 244 units since 1999 — and the borough getting “bonus credits” for building or allowing certain types of housing, Princeton is committing to zone for or build 537 units and rehabilitate another 75.

The settlement agreed to by the borough, home to the Ivy League university and the result of the only municipal merger in the state in more than two decades, marks the 310th agreement negotiated with Fair Share Housing, which has been leading the effort to get New Jersey municipalities to agree to zone for homes affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. The nonprofit is still working to secure agreements with just 33 more municipalities on housing obligations that are to be met through amended zoning or actual construction through 2025.

While it has taken more than four years to get this far, that is an accomplishment, given that the Council on Affordable Housing — the state agency that used to oversee this process –– had not written regulations or set new obligations since 1999. In March 2015, the state Supreme Court took the housing process away from COAH and put it back in the hands of the courts, where it had been right after the state court’s landmark Mount Laurel decisions, the first of which was handed down 44 years ago. Through its decisions, the state court has ruled that municipalities must provide their “fair share” of the affordable housing needs in the state.

Fair Share Housing Center, which takes its name from the Mount Laurel doctrine, lauded the Princeton settlement as the end of prolonged litigation and discussions with the borough. Princeton had originally sought court approval for its affordable housing plans in July 2015. After Princeton and West Windsor failed to reach settlements with Fair Share, a judge issued a March 2018 ruling that calculated a statewide housing obligation of almost 155,000 new units through 2025.

“We are pleased that Princeton has come to the table and reached an agreement with housing and civil rights advocates that will provide new opportunities for working families and people with disabilities in Central Jersey to live close to good schools and jobs,” Fair Share Housing Center executive director Kevin Walsh said in a statement. “Though negotiations were long and, at times, difficult, this agreement will lead to a stronger and more inclusive Princeton.”

Community support

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said the community already has a stock of affordable housing and welcomes adding more. At a special meeting Wednesday night, the borough council voted unanimously to adopt the plan and the audience “erupted in cheers and applause” following the vote.

“We have heard some individual neighborhood concerns over particular projects, but overall, our community is very supportive of affordable housing,” she said. “We have a long and successful history of building affordable housing and seeing how it contributes positively to the community.”

It took so long to reach an agreement because the borough had specific goals for reaching its court-set obligation, Lempert said. In the end, the plan exceeds Princeton’s obligation by 25 units.

“The governing body was determined to develop a plan that not only met our affordable housing obligation number, but did it in a way that strengthened our overall community by contributing to other important goals as well,” she said, “including increasing the amount of affordable senior housing, providing housing opportunities for developmentally disabled adults, and maximizing the positive economic benefits of smart growth planning by building housing within easy walking distance and with transit access to shopping and jobs.”

Lempert also said negotiating a settlement behind closed doors made the process more difficult and she, like many other municipal officials, would prefer a return to a governmental process that is open.

“We’re all hoping that the Legislature will pass legislation to guide towns for the fourth round,” she said. “No one thinks a planning process is best done in court. It’s expensive and it makes it difficult to include the public in decision-making.”

Former borough, township obligations

The fact that the current Princeton was created in 2013 from the former borough and township also complicated the negotiations because each of those municipalities had had separate past obligations under COAH. Housing regulations are rewritten and local requirements recalculated every so often, and past obligations that were not met carry forward every time new numbers are set. The current iteration is the third set of obligations, known as the third round, and extends to 1999 because COAH had not drafted valid rules since that year.

Under its settlement, Princeton has agreed to build 265 new units in five developments on its own, and gets bonus credits for some of those, as well as rezoning four sites to generate another 77. Of the new units, a maximum of 287 can be set aside for senior citizens. The borough has also agreed to designate substantial numbers of homes for very low- and low-income residents — those with a maximum annual income of $31,000 and $52,000, respectively — and for families.

The plan spells out the redevelopment of the Princeton Shopping Center to ensure that 44 affordable family rental units will be built on the site, which will implement such best planning practices as pedestrian, bicycle and public transit access. According to Fair Share, the agreement also ensures that future redevelopment of key areas of the town, including along Nassau Street, include affordable housing to ensure equitable development.

Princeton has also agreed to work with the local nonprofit Princeton Community Housing to develop projects where all units are affordable, including some set aside for very low-income residents.

“Strong fair housing settlements, such as this one, are one of the most important ways we can confront sustained racial inequality and build a more inclusive future,” Walsh said.

The settlement is considered tentative until approved by Superior Court assignment judge Mary Jacobson, sitting in Mercer County. A hearing is tentatively set for Feb. 7.