College students, particularly those at universities like Princeton, are typically transient residents. Establishing roots in a community takes time and effort, both of which seem to be barriers in the town of Princeton according to popular perception. Locals often quip that students are rarely, if ever, seen more than a block or two north of Nassau Street.
Yet, Princeton students do not face an unreceptive or disinterested community outside of campus. Just ask longtime Princeton residents like Fern and Larry Spruill. Larry, a University employee of over three decades, and Fern, a member of Princeton’s Civil Rights Commission, have served and continue to serve in countless capacities for the betterment of the Princeton community. Both Fern and Larry look back fondly at their time living among faculty, staff, and graduate students at the former Hibben and Magie apartments.
During their 22-year residence there, the Spruills embodied what journalist Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” — the idea that continual activity and observation by residents keep a neighborhood safe and cohesive. Larry reminisced about inviting other neighborhood children to join his kids or grandkids in spontaneous projects or canoe trips. Fern recalled cooking healthy, communal meals and acquiring bunk beds to accommodate weekend stays for visiting children. The Spruills, especially Larry, who served as the housing superintendent of the apartments, were well-known throughout the community. “In fact, I had one mother tell me that her child’s first words were ‘Larry’,” remarked Fern.
From the Spruills’ perspective, these experiences opened up opportunities for positive interaction, reassured parents of their children’s safety, and even debunked negative stereotypes about Black Americans that some neighbors had heard.
“[W]e had changed that into our own little community, where everybody could come out and barbeque together and we could just laugh and talk… that was so powerful for them,” said Larry.
Indeed, former residents who had been neighbors to the Spruills — including researchers from countries like Germany and Switzerland — had written to University administrators expressing the same sentiment. Their story highlights the role of housing in providing not only a place to live in Princeton without displacing other residents but also a model community.
Stories like these are often obscured in our public debates about housing unaffordability and segregation, even though they illustrate exactly what is at stake. We should expose bad policies that thwart diverse, equitable communities, but we must also join in the work of promoting community, which policy change arguably requires.
For instance, plenty of homeowners in progressive places purport to care about housing affordability in the abstract but balk at even the most minor policy change meant to promote it. Perhaps they would see things differently and vote accordingly if they had personal connections to the people negatively impacted by housing unaffordability in their community.
I raise this point because many Princeton students will go on to live in areas where the housing crisis is raging. Consider that 80 percent of Princeton alumni live in the top 80 most-populated metropolitan areas, with one-fourth occupying the New York metropolitan area, arguably the most exclusive in the country. Indeed, many Princeton graduates seek professions that cluster in these areas — nearly 37 percent of the class of 2017 secured employment in professional, finance, insurance, tech, and information fields — and earn the salaries necessary to live there — $74,700 median earnings six years after graduation. Put plainly, the average Princeton graduate will have far greater choice in their residential mobility than the average American.
Unfortunately, our current housing policies nearly guarantee that Princeton graduates will contribute to inequality wherever they live. Gentrification is a familiar fear, particularly in the booming metropolitan areas. Yet, if graduates instead move to more exclusive neighborhoods, they will almost certainly exacerbate ethnoracial and socioeconomic segregation without doing much to avoid displacement either. This illustrates what happens when communities artificially restrict housing supply, particularly amidst skyrocketing demand: housing becomes prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthy. Many of us are already part of this dynamic in Princeton whether we realize it or not.
Of course, our unfair housing markets need not operate this way, and we can take several steps to change them — both here in Princeton and wherever else life takes us. The first step requires us to be active members of our communities. We should seek out and know the histories of those who have lived here long before us. Often, communities have organizations that serve this purpose, among many others. Princeton Mutual Aid, which brings together students and neighbors like the Spruills, is one example.
When steeped in the history of our communities, we gain the insight to garner positive change. This includes contributing to the enrichment of the community by supporting rather than uprooting existing, valued institutions — for instance, businesses and schools — or by filling currently unmet needs — say, affordable housing. This requires us to know the needs and desires of the entire community, not just the privileged or vocal few. It also requires us to welcome the diversity that comes with change — something that neighborhoods, with respect to ethnoracial diversity, are increasingly exhibiting over time — while also recognizing core qualities and institutions that should remain.
Finally, we should be advocates for housing policies that reject the status-quo, zero-sum mentality. Our local governments cannot solve all housing issues, but they are not helpless, either. They can do much to promote housing diversity and stability by implementing zoning reform, encouraging community land trusts, and adopting renter protections.
Princeton students have much to contribute to a world full of vexing problems. Yet, we should not overlook the contributions that all of us can make which do not require a Princeton degree — only a desire to improve the immediate world around us. As Fern sees it, “Being a good neighbor is really a virtue.” Crediting his Southern roots, Larry reflexively likens being a good neighbor to depending on one another. “It’s that old saying: treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Matt Mleczko is a Population Studies and Social Policy doctoral student at the Office of Population Research and the School of Public and International Affairs and a graduate research assistant at The Eviction Lab from Kenosha, Wis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.