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Community members express frustration with University at planning forum

A photo of a town intersection under yellow-orange sunset skies.
A pause in time to bask in the beauty of a downtown sunset. Nassau Street and Vandeventer Ave. at dusk. 
Guanyi Cao / The Daily Princetonian

The Municipality of Princeton’s Planning Board presented their community master plan at the first of 10 planned listening sessions on Sept. 12.

The master plan is a document created by members of the steering community, including Princeton Assistant Vice President of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget, business owners, town officials, and others. The document sets out "principles and goals" for policies and ordinances approved by the town.

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With feedback long contained in discussion posts and legislative bodies now openly aired, the University was both in the listening chair and at the crosshairs of community scrutiny at a forum focused on community relations. 

The master plan is an official document adopted by Princeton to address current and anticipated future conditions that is revisited every 10 years. The municipality plans to release the proposal in October and vote on it in November. Until then, they have set up a series of 10 listening sessions across Princeton to hear directly from community members about their concerns and desires. On an online engagement hub, community members can participate in surveys and offer feedback. 

Through this survey, the Planning Board learned that, in addition to the pertinent issues of climate and affordability, issues surrounding use and awareness of services are pervasive. For example, 93 percent of respondents do not use Princeton’s free bus service. 

During the meeting, community members expressed frustration with the University’s relationship to the town regarding rent and affordable housing.

While the University maintains a working relationship with the municipality, community members at a recent listening session expressed that Princeton barely pays taxes because of its nonprofit designation.

“It’s just not fair,” one person said.

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This, however is untrue. Despite receiving a tax exemption on certain properties, the University voluntarily makes payments to the town, including a recent more than 14.6 million dollar contribution to Princeton public schools. In 2022, it paid 6.2 million dollars in tax on properties that were exempt, making it the largest property taxpayer in the municipality. 

One community member expressed their feeling that “the town is dying” due to exorbitant rent

Many other universities own large swaths of land but enjoy large tax exemptions due to their nonprofit status. 

Like all municipalities in New Jersey, Princeton is required to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing under state law and the Mount Laurel Township precedent. The New Jersey State Constitution adopted a provision declaring housing as a right in 1973. Easier said than done, municipalities across the state have found a plethora of workarounds and loopholes to this provision, some of which have been challenged in court, many of which have never been addressed.

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However, until 2015, Regional Contribution Agreements permitted wealthier towns to pay poorer towns to satisfy their affordable housing obligations. This practice was overturned that year by the New Jersey Supreme Court. This decision required Princeton to create the opportunity for the construction of 753 more units, by 2025.

Professor Aaron Shkuda, director of the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, told The Daily Princetonian that the relationship between the University and the municipality is complicated by the fact that the University is much richer and has more resources than the town of Princeton. For example, “the University has more buses than the whole municipality,” he said.

Shkuda explained that efforts towards affordable housing development aren’t “happening because people see a great need for rethinking, but because they are legally required.” However, consciousness is shifting, he said. He continued that “people beyond my world are now studying single-family zoning in cities and suburbs,” pointing to Minneapolis as an example of a municipality that has completely done away with single-family zoning. 

Housing was a topic at the meeting, as Ian Henderson, Senior Planner with the Princeton Planning Board, explained that the whole country is currency facing an “affordability gap” for young professionals just out of college. Explaining that “the one percent are all set,” middle-income and working-class young adults, on the other hand, are increasingly finding it harder and harder to buy or rent. 

According to the Pew Research Center, in October 2021, about half of Americans (49 percent) said this was a major problem where they live, up 10 percentage points from early 2018. In the same 2021 survey, 70 percent of Americans said young adults today have a harder time buying a home than their parents’ generation did.

Princeton, indeed, is not immune to this trend. Henderson explained that average rent in Princeton is $2,200. 

“[The] bulk of Princeton is zoned for single family detached houses where the average price is $900,000 a house,” Shkuda said. He continued that even Princeton professors struggle to afford houses in Princeton. Professors therefore live in nearby suburbs, pushing service workers even further away, with massive spillover effects. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood historically has been a majority Black, working class demographic. The neighborhood is now plurality white.

Indeed, a concealed domino, shrouded in the larger issue of affordability, illustrates the far-reaching impact of the affordability crisis. With many service workers unable to afford rent where they work in downtown Princeton, they are forced to travel from faraway residences using private vehicles, causing a parking crisis.

One Princeton student at the listening session, Jade Jang ‘25, expressed that it is “really exciting to be able to share and take part in conversations surrounding affordable housing.” She was told about the session by Professor Matt Desmond, whom she got to know through the Eviction Lab. A lack of student engagement with the community was also a subject of criticism during the meeting.

The last time the Planning Board evaluated the master plan in this scope and nature was in 1996. Topics on the agenda of the Planning Board include land use, housing, mobility, stormwater, community facilities, and recreation. 

Two instances since — in 2012 and 2020 — involved evaluating specific elements of the plan. The former looked at community land use, the latter at affordable housing. Because of how new and salient the housing crisis and this revision is, it is an element of the master plan that will be carried through to the new November proposal. 

Abby Leibowitz is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.‘

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the University's land ownership and tax contribution. A previous version of this article also said Witherspoon-Jackson was majority white. The 'Prince' regrets these errors. 

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