Silas “Bud” Massey, Jr. doesn’t have much time to relax or chat on the phone. At 80 years old, after two brief retirements, Massey is back at work part-time as a driver at the Institute for Advanced Study. He says he can’t afford to retire.
Massey didn’t hesitate to say what forced him to go back to work: the Princeton-wide tax revaluation.
“I wasn’t getting that much from social security and my pension … I wasn’t making that kind of money,” Massey said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
Massey has lived in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton’s historically Black neighborhood, for his entire life. When Princeton conducted a tax revaluation in 2010, he wasn’t expecting much change — however, his property taxes nearly doubled.
The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood has a long and important history for Princeton’s Black residents as an eight-block island segregated from the rest of the town. Black people settled in what is now the neighborhood in the 1700s and the area expanded throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. The community had its own YM/YWCA and library. Many of the buildings are still standing, including Mt. Pisgah AME Church built in 1860.
The neighborhood has been the affordable centerpiece for the Black community in Princeton for over a century, according to an interview with Princeton Councilmember Leighton Newlin. At the neighborhood’s height in the 1950s, it had four churches, a hospital, and their own newspaper (the Citizen). But in the past few decades, residents say that the once tight-knit community has faded, along with the neighborhood’s affordability.
“[Black people] don’t represent anywhere near the percentage of homeowners in this neighborhood now [than as we used to],” Newlin said. “The tax implications of that  revaluation, I would say, seriously accelerated the gentrification of the neighborhood.”
After combing through hundreds of pages of tax records for the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood from 2007 to 2010, a ‘Prince’ investigation found that after the 2010 revaluation, property taxes in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood increased by over $1,700 on average, nearly a 25 percent increase from the previous year. This came after taxes increased by $80 between 2007 and 2008 and $445 between 2008 and 2009.
“Black people can’t live in Princeton no more,” Massey told the ‘Prince.’ “Taxes too high. I don’t care what kind of job they get. Taxes too high for them.”
Because the tax records were not digitized, the ‘Prince’ manually entered tax values for the 393 properties in the neighborhood. Together, this totals nearly 2,000 manually entered individual data points.
For 12 of the cases, property taxes doubled from 2009 to 2010. One of those homeowners was Richard Jackson, who still remembers seeing what he owed in property taxes for 2010, more than a decade later.
“I was shocked,” Jackson told the ‘Prince’ in an interview. “But I’m trying to deal with it the best way that I can.”
The increases were concentrated on the streets with the most properties. On Birch Avenue and Leigh Avenue, where half of the residents in the neighborhood live, property taxes increased by nearly 50 percent on average.
According to Neal Snyder, Princeton’s Tax Assessor, residents’ property taxes increased dramatically because the assessed value of their land increased significantly in the 2010 revaluation. Multiple factors contribute to a property’s value, but Snyder says that the most important is the market value of a property.
“We’re reviewing the accuracy of their property valuation,” Snyder told the ‘Prince’ in an interview. “Not the tax dollars that they’re paying for their property.”
Snyder said that the jump in property taxes was high because the properties were undervalued before the 2010 revaluation.
After the revaluation, property values in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood more than doubled on average, from nearly $150,000 to nearly $375,000. Still, residents had no way of knowing their properties were being under-assessed, and the tax increases in 2010 came as a surprise to many residents.
“We didn’t know why [the evaluators] increased it so much, and they said it’s because they hadn’t done an evaluation in such a long period of time, and it was needed, and that’s why it increased by so much. That shouldn’t be our fault,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s home, which used to belong to his grandmother, increased in value from $62,900 before the evaluation to $232,000 after the evaluation. His property taxes more than doubled from $2,282 in 2009 to $5,435 in 2010. He says he hasn’t made any changes to the home since the previous revaluation in 1996 and noted his frustration and confusion with the evaluation process itself.
Massey also expressed his displeasure with the revaluation process.
“They didn’t assess anything. That was just a bunch of bull,” he said.
Snyder said that the market for homes in Witherspoon-Jackson had increased considerably before the revaluation.
“[Homeowners] didn’t have to do anything [to their homes],” Snyder said. “It’s just that the land value, the whole package compared to the last revaluation, went up considerably.”
One of the contributing factors to increasing market values is the increased interest in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood because of its affordability, both from potential buyers and developers.
The same goes for home sales: if a nearby home is sold, its sale price affects the values of neighboring properties, according to Snyder. With each high-value sale, the value of other properties in the neighborhood increases, creating a seemingly endless loop of property value increases that eventually are reflected in revaluations and corresponding property tax assessments.
Snyder emphasized that this change in market value is what affects property taxes. Home sales affect the neighborhood “whether they tear them down, or they rehab them, or just move into them. It’s whatever the market bears in that neighborhood,” he said.
Sale prices for property in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood have increased more dramatically than in the town of Princeton as a whole between 2000 and 2022. Over the 22 year period, the average sale price has steadily increased in the neighborhood to more than five times its value in 2000, according to a ‘Prince’ analysis. This increase is greater than the average over the full Princeton township, where sale prices tripled in that time, as did the average home cost in the United States.
Shirley Satterfield, the director of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, told the ‘Prince’ that there has been pressure on residents from developers to sell their homes.
“I get calls from contractors calling me all the time [asking me] do you want to sell your house,” Satterfield said.
The neighborhood also attracts investors looking to purchase a home, rent it, and later sell it for a profit, according to Eileen Logue, who invested in a home on Birch Avenue. Logue, who lives in San Diego, told the ‘Prince’ that the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood fit her investment criteria perfectly.
Logue wanted to invest in a property in a “smaller town that had a university,” and noted that such locations would “have the culture that you wouldn’t get in most American small towns.” She said her family chose the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood because “it was the only smaller, more affordable part of Princeton … we just thought ‘oh, this could be up and coming.’”
Logue told the ‘Prince’ that she held the investment property for seven years. The value of the property increased by only $26,500 over that period, and she attributes the small profit to the housing bubble.
Satterfield, on the other hand, is living in a house originally built by her uncle and says she’s trying to keep her family’s homes in her family as much as possible.
“It’s really hard every time I pass these houses and see what’s happened to the houses for people who used to live in them,” Satterfield said. “Our community has become a commodity.”
Bruce Afran, a Princeton lawyer and professor at Rutgers, told the ‘Prince’ that he had a different explanation for why taxes increased so much after the revaluation. He represented Princeton residents who sued the township and borough of Princeton in 2011 after, the suit argues, the homes of lower-income families saw a tax increase while the most valuable properties saw a tax decrease. The plaintiff’s complaint argued that during the revaluation, the assessors “arbitrarily” grouped the wealthier homes with the low-income homes, forcing the assessment to average the values of the drastically different properties.
“There was absolutely no reason to put the two in the same district. They’re completely different communities,” Afran said.
A ‘Prince’ analysis found that property taxes increased in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where properties were, on average, valued less than $150,000. Taxes decreased by four percent in West Princeton, where homes had been valued in the multi-millions.
Though Afran and his clients originally wanted a new revaluation, the cost made it infeasible. Instead, they settled for new rules in future revolutions. According to the settlement, the town council now must approve the revaluation committee, instead of it just being the tax assessor’s decision, and the public can weigh in on tax districts and other decisions like contracts via public comments and meetings.
“If this happened again, where Witherspoon-Jackson was lumped in with the upper-class part of the community, people could immediately go to court to seek an injunction to stop this process. But nobody could do that before, because no one knew about it until it was over,” Afran said. “This will empower people in the community.”
Residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood also attempted to curb market value increases by petitioning the town council to designate the neighborhood as an official historic district. The designation, which they received in 2016, restricted the types of modifications that could be made to the properties and imposed certain burdens on the upkeep and repair of the properties. Other historic districts include Prospect Avenue.
Residents whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations are leaving because they can’t afford to pay the increased property taxes on the properties, according to Newlin.
In her 2017 book on the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, “I Hear My People Singing,” former Princeton professor Kathryn Watterson wrote that residents are finding their homes less affordable and the option of moving more tempting.
She wrote that the “New Great Migration” is affecting younger families in Witherspoon-Jackson who may move “back south” for a lower cost of living and economic opportunities. But it also affects older residents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.
“Older Witherspoon residents on limited or fixed incomes keep watching their tax bills go up and become more difficult to pay. The offers, which come in regularly on their properties, can be tempting as they approach end-of-life decisions,” Watterson wrote.
Those who do move may have a hard time coming back, Satterfield told the ‘Prince.’ She said that people who moved from their family homes have no way of returning if they want to.
“[They] can no longer come back and be in these homes because of the taxes,” Satterfield said. “This used to be a redlining district … now this is prime property.”
Still, some older residents decide to stay — whether out of pride or to preserve their family history, among other reasons. Jackson and Massey both told the ‘Prince’ they take advantage of New Jersey’s senior freeze on property taxes, which allows citizens over the age of 65 to “freeze” their taxes.
“This was my mother’s house way back in the day,” Massey said. “I didn’t want anything to happen to it regardless, so I was gonna do whatever I could do to keep it. She did all she could do for nothing if we just settle out and move out.”
“When I move, I’ll be in that box. They’ll carry me out of here. I won’t be walking,” he added.
“You know what they call that,” Newlin, sitting next to Massey, laughed. “The upper room.”
“That’s right!” Massey responded. “This is where I’m gonna be buried at, right here.”
The effects on the Witherspoon-Jackson community
Jackson said that the changes have affected the character of both the neighborhood and the relationships between neighbors.
“The community is not the same as it used to be,” Jackson said. “The people who used to live here cared about their community. Now it’s a little bit different, where you have a lot of renters and people who come and go.”
Massey spoke brightly of his childhood in Witherspoon-Jackson and how close everyone there used to be, but his tone darkened when talking about the community now.
“I don’t know nobody now,” Massey said. “I’ve been here all my life. I don’t know nobody in this town.”
“Well,” he laughed to Newlin sitting next to him. “I know Leighton.”
Newlin, who was part of the team that petitioned to make Witherspoon-Jackson a historic neighborhood, said that the designation has been a huge help in preserving the neighborhood, but the requirements that come with it could be difficult for people with lower incomes.
“In some ways, it has become more challenging, especially for the people that live in a neighborhood who are still of low and modest means and just trying to hang on after they were hit with that huge tax increase 13 years ago now,” Newlin said. “Many of us are just hanging on by the hairs of our chinny chin chin.”
Newlin described the neighborhood as the center of the Black community.
“In the early fifties when I grew up here in Princeton, the Princeton that I knew ended at Jackson Street … Everything that African Americans and Italian Americans needed in Princeton [was in the neighborhood],” Newlin said. “From butcher shops to the social clubs, to churches, to bodegas, to hair salons, to barber shops, to bakers, to candlestick makers, to the seamstress, and the domestic workers.”
Jackson was born and raised in the neighborhood and reminisced about his childhood in Witherspoon-Jackson.
“Everything was fun. It was peaceful. Everybody knew each other, everyone took care of each other … It was a good place to grow up,” he said.
Satterfield also grew up in the neighborhood, and likened it to a “Black Wall Street.”
“Every house was a candy store or a beauty parlor,” Satterfield said. “This was our community and we didn’t worry about not being able to go to Nassau Street and shop. But we didn’t need to. We had everything in our community. All of that is gone now.”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad change,” she continued. “It’s just different. It’s just that we know how people with money can get what we can no longer afford.”
Newlin hopes the historic designation will slow both the jumps in property taxes, as well as the construction and development that often cause them. As a town councilmember, he says he is working to help people struggling in both Witherspoon-Jackson and throughout Princeton.
“I’m hopeful that some types of programs like financial aid help through organizations like the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation, working with the University, and other avenues can be explored and initiated to help people that really need help,” Newlin said.
“Princeton is a gated community, and there are a lot of people who are struggling all the same to pay the exorbitant amount of taxes that are growing here all the time and need some kind of help to age in place, especially old people. And that’s something we’re working on,” he added.
Charlie Roth is a head Data editor and a senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.