What if, in spite of all good intentions, the assumptions are wrong?
All changes will have winners and losers. David Cohen acknowledged as much when he claimed that a ranch house “would be worth more dead than alive.” Who loses when a ranch house is torn down?
Let’s set aside the sentimentality people have for the home they may have built, in which raised their children, the trees they planted, the garden they grew, or the neighbors and neighborhood they loved. All that good will may build community, but the focus of the Master Plan is “missing middle” housing – a type of housing, not a price point.
A member of the Planning Board suggested that a developer might buy a ranch house for $1million, tear it down, and build two $500,000 homes. See you in bankruptcy court because you won’t be in business for long with that business plan! If only the meeting had been in person, we all could have shared a good guffaw.
What is more likely to happen is that a developer may pay a premium for the house before it is on the market. Cash offer. No brokerage fees. No costs related to sprucing up the house to put in on the market. The homeowner may be sad that their home won’t be enjoyed by another family, but they have been compensated, and maybe that is enough. Win-win for the developer and homeowner. Losers? Seniors looking for a one-level home, possibly a young family, someone with physical challenges who needs wheelchair access.
Chances are that the old ranch wasn’t built to the maximum allowable Floor Area Ratio. This is why so many ranches and bungalows have been torn down and replaced with large homes built as-of-right. But let’s assume that the developer, having purchased this fictional $1 million home, is willing to build just two homes on the same footprint as the ranch, as was explained by Mr. Cohen. Based on figures around town, perhaps the two new homes EACH will be offered for sale in the $1.3 - $1.7 million range. Now who is winning? The developer, again. And the new homeowners and their 2-4 children, who will attend Princeton Public Schools.
So who loses? The Master Plan talks about seniors and the ability to age in place, but they focus a great deal on cost, and rightly so. But stairs are not the friend of seniors who are downsizing, so seniors lose because a housing opportunity is lost.
Neighbors lose in a couple of ways. One way is that they now have a two- or three-story dwelling next to their property, perhaps looming over their backyard. But the big loss is that the tax assessor has taken note of the uptick in housing sales in the neighborhood, and perhaps this triggers a reassessment. When the developer paid $1 million for a tear down, they essentially created a LAND VALUE of $1 million. (Feel free to take a break, review your most recent tax bill, and grab a drink.) Two more premium sales, and new comparables are created. Without having made any improvements to their own houses, the neighbors’ assessments have increased, and an increase in TAXES will follow shortly. Ouch. Definitely losers.
Master Plan supporters insist that the trees and canopy will be protected, but getting equipment in and out of a property, digging the basement a bit deeper, cutting a new sewer line will inevitably cost the neighborhood a few trees. The six-foot saplings planted as replacements aren’t the same as an old-growth tree. Losers.
Now the neighbor, perhaps a senior, a legacy family, maybe on fixed income, is looking at their tax bill and wondering, “How can I afford to stay?” And then there is a knock at the door. It is the friendly neighborhood developer with an offer in hand. $1 million plus – because even the developer realizes they have bid up the value of homes. And so the neighbor sells, too, and two more houses replace the tear down. Winners are the developer, and the reluctant neighbor who now has to find somewhere else to live, and the two new families whose kids get to go to Princeton Public Schools. The town is a winner – sort of – with two additional houses. But it also has four additional cars. (Not what we wanted/planned! officials scream.) And in relatively quick succession, more neighbors decide to take the pay day while they can and get out of town. One house begets two, but kids and cars multiply even faster. And so do the taxes. Suddenly, the old neighborhood, with its modest homes and mature trees, has been replaced with upscale homes, bustling with children, and saplings. The automobiles have doubled and traffic has increased. This illustrates the unintended consequence of this Draft Master Plan; it potentially will accelerate the rising prices of homes in Princeton, worsening affordability and destroying the character simultaneously. This is the exact opposite of the intention, but a realistic possibility nonetheless.
The Master Plan envisions a world in which people don’t need cars, but the reality is that most Princeton residents have cars, even if they also walk and bike a great deal. The MP assumes that families with children won’t live in smaller homes, but for those who are eager to get kids into the school system, it is a sacrifice they are willing to make, and it is the norm for many cultures. The MP assumes that people are staying in their homes longer than they want and that many families are “overhoused” – an assumption based on little evidence. While we are assuming that more people are working from home, can we not also assume they are using a bedroom as an office? Or that during Covid, family members returned to live with them? Or that people who are no longer comfortable at the gym are using that extra bedroom for a workout room? When did the town get in the business of determining who is living in the appropriate size home?
The point is that with very good intentions and hope for the world’s future, the crafters of the Master Plan made some assumptions that may or may not be correct. Certainly, there were plenty of people who attended the meeting last week who had a different point of view of the world and potential unintended consequences. It is not “scaremongering” to see another future; it may be a reality.
Mr. Lesko said that the changes to the Plan are not up-zoning. But if the assumptions that are in the Master Plan aren’t borne out, you can be sure that any course correction will be considered down zoning, and there will be no turning back.
This is why we can’t calm down. Mistakes could be fatal to Princeton and to the residents who call this home.