This article was originally published in the September 2017 Princeton Echo.
Sometimes the best place to seek change is literally in your own back yard. For a Princeton-based group of progressive activists, that means housing, specifically in price ranges affordable for those in the middle class or on fixed income.
In an effort led by Marina Rubina, an architect, and Yael Niv, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, the group proposes zoning changes that would allow and encourage development of the “missing middle homes,” which would encourage diversity in Princeton’s housing stock. Their suggested actions are short term and easy to implement, they believe, and could make a substantial difference for lower and middle income residents.
Rubina and Niv, along with 18 other Princetonians who are part of the Princeton Progressive Action Group (PPAG), signed a letter addressed to Mayor Lempert, council members, and the planning board that expressed alarm “at the increasingly pressing lack of housing that is available at middle-income levels in Princeton.” The letter (see page 7) offers a preliminary plan to increase diversity in Princeton by creating more affordable living options in Princeton.
The letter is a response to progress report issued in June by the Princeton Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative, which highlights the concerns of Princeton residents “about maintaining the affordability of its neighborhoods and its accessibility to people and families at various incomes and stages of life.” Housing characterized as the “missing middle” includes “multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.” These “can accommodate people at various ages and income levels.”
The PPAG proposal has three parts:
1.) To allow “flats” or apartments in the former borough, a privilege that is currently enjoyed only in the former township. According to the proposal, “the income from these flats can help current residents stay in their homes longer by offsetting rising taxes or providing money for property maintenance and improvement.” They also create an affordable alternative for middle-income residents.
The township offers many examples of residents who benefit from offering rooms or apartments in their homes. Split levels, Rubina says, are “made for this, but pretty much any house could accommodate an apartment.”
One example are Rubina’s clients Louise Sandburg and Peter Smith, who live in a split level on Grover Avenue, behind Princeton Shopping Center. Given their housing costs, they confronted a serious issue when Smith retired. “It was a question of how long we could stay in Princeton,” Sandburg says.
When Smith suggested making an apartment Sandburg had concerns about cutting up the house, clearing out “the books,” and having a stranger living in the house.
But eventually realizing that their house, which already had a big bedroom, small bath, and separate entrance in the basement, could be easily divided, they hired Rubina to create a plan. Rather than converting Smith’s downstairs workshop in the former garage into a living space for the flat, Rubina suggested using two-thirds of what had been a large family room, TV room, and library; and they went with that idea.
Although the apartment hasn’t been constantly rented, Smith says, over three years “it helps a lot.”
2.) To allow residents in houses where apartments are allowed to convert those houses into duplexes and to allow the building of new duplexes. This need not increase the sizes of existing houses or the density, since two families are already allowed to occupy these properties. The result would either be two units that each sell for roughly half of what the entire house costs or, for larger lots, where one unit is required to be larger than the other, the costs and sizes of the two flats in a duplex would not be the same.
Rubina writes in an e-mail: “Contrary to popular belief, developers said in public meetings that rather than selling houses for $1.3 to $1.4 million that sit on the market for some time, they would be glad to build duplexes for $650,000 to $700,000. Their cost and profit are about the same, but the value of land is shared by the two owners. The pool of people who can afford to buy something in Princeton thus is much greater.”
Rubina is now working on what was a small two-story colonial that had been converted to two units. The entry hall became the lobby; and doors were installed from the lobby to the first-floor apartment and at the top of the stairs into the second-floor apartment. “It’s effectively a duplex,” she says. “Why not allow people to make a duplex instead of a house with a flat — then you can sell them separately.” This makes the space a possibility for “people with less money — otherwise you have to be wealthy enough to buy the whole thing.” This configuration also accommodates many people who, she says, “when downsizing, feel odd renting.”
Sometimes neighbors voice concerns about the idea of duplexes and houses with flats. For example: “When I bought my house, these were single-family houses, and I expected them to be single family, and now they will be duplexes.” But, Rubina asks, “is your life going to be that different if it’s a duplex? Jefferson and Moore streets are a mix of single family and duplexes — is that a problem?”
3.) To reduce the number of required parking spaces for homes with flats, which is currently two spaces in a single-family residence with more than two bedrooms; one additional space for a one-bedroom or studio; and two additional spaces for a two-bedroom.
But, Rubina says, not everyone chooses to have a car: for example, university students or people aging in place. “It used to be everyone has to have a car to get everywhere, but not anymore; there are a lot of people who don’t own cars in this town,” she says. “A taxi or Uber is still cheaper than owning a car; and if the only reason to have a car is to go grocery shopping once a week, that sounds wasteful.”
Rubina observes that attitudes regarding cars are changing. She says. “A lot of people used to believe every household has to have two cars, and the way our zoning is written, it is mandating these things that are outdated.”
The Princeton Progressive Action Group, which was formed in the wake of the 2016 election and currently has about 40 members, is also concerned with issues such as biking, walkability, sustainability, and diversity. It’s pushing back against people in town who oppose change or think that nothing can be done to change the current conditions. As Niv characterizes that point of view: “Let’s not change anything; let’s not have teardowns; let’s stay in the ’70s and ’80s.” But, she continues, “things change all the time; we can try to prevent that, but it won’t work. Then changes won’t happen in an organized and planned way.”
A full understanding of PPAG’s proposals requires some understanding of Princeton’s government, Rubina notes. “The mayor and council adopt new laws; and everything related to construction and density gets recorded in our zoning code,” Rubina says, explaining that this code controls density, the height and footprint of houses, and the amount of impervious coverage (paved surfaces) allowed. “All those regulations affect not only housing but people’s lives in many other ways.”
The distinction between the planning and zoning boards is also important. “The planning board is the ‘yes’ board,” she says. “They are advising and planning for the future — big picture stuff.” Residents appear before the board when they want to do something that meets the goals of the master plan, for example, subdividing property into two lots.
“The zoning board is the ‘no’ board,” she continues. They don’t make any rules, but their job is to impose the rules and only grant exceptions in the case of special hardship. For example, suppose someone would like to create an apartment but does not have enough parking.
PPAG presented its ideas at the June 29 planning board meeting. “Everyone in the audience seemed very supportive of the idea and several people asked to join our group after that meeting,” Rubina says. “The planning board was also very supportive and seemed to add these items to a list of high priority things to work on.”
For people who are impatiently waiting for the zoning laws of the former township and former borough to be harmonized, Rubina points out that harmonizing zoning codes is not easy. Although on average the former borough was denser and the township more suburban, she says, “There are areas in the borough that are much more like the township.” And of course neighborhoods in the former borough vary in density and character. “The reason harmonizing is so difficult is the zoning laws don’t correspond to the situation on the ground; what exists doesn’t match what is in the books,” Rubina says.
“The laws were written many years ago, and the goals were to try to push everyone toward more suburban living, but the center of town already existed,” she continues, explaining that the regulations have to do with more parking, bigger setbacks, bigger houses, and bigger lots, and they were overlaid on existing properties with smaller lots.”
In Rubina’s neighborhood, the Witherspoon-Jackson area, which is in the densest R4 zoning code, the minimum lot requirement is 60 by 100 feet, but most of the lots are 30 by 100 feet. “That means they can’t possibly comply with the zoning regulations; everything those people do gets to the zoning board,” she says. For a house she is building on Leigh Avenue in Princeton, she had to get a zoning variance to allow her to build on a 40 by 100 lot.
Rubina also explains some of the factors that are driving housing costs and demolitions in Princeton. First of all, cost is driven by land value. “Everybody wants to live in Princeton; for some it is the walkability; for other people, it is to live close to the train station; for others, it’s the schools — which creates a huge demand.” Secondly, many people do not want to buy old houses. “They have two jobs, and their lives are very busy; they don’t have time to work on old houses and fix them by themselves; they want to buy something new or remodeled that does not require them to work on it for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Then enter developers, who frequently purchase older, dilapidated properties, tear them down, and build larger, more expensive homes on the lots. To recoup the high costs of construction, the developer tries “to build the biggest thing they can build,” Rubina says, explaining that the bigger the house, the cheaper it is per square foot. “The kitchen and bathrooms are really expensive, and the extra volume doesn’t cost you that much more; that’s how they can maximize their profit.”
But what if, instead of a 3,000-square-foot house with one kitchen and three baths, the builder created a duplex, each with smaller kitchens and 1.5 or 2 baths? “They could sell them as two and spread the value of the land between two people,” says Rubina. “If we really want regulations that will make a big difference, we either have to allow these duplexes or reduce the allowable size of the house by so much that effectively the value of the land will drop.”
Reducing allowable size, however, creates a problem for the people who bought the house years ago as an investment and are now ready to sell it and as a result “the town [would be] effectively taking money from the people who put it in,” Rubina says. “If the town were to say that they are only allowed to build a house of the same size on the property, that will dramatically reduce the development potential but will take so much money away from the people who own those houses.” If, for example, regulations reduced allowable size, the people on Ewing Street, who have been able to sell very small houses for a goodly sum because of their big development potential, would have been out of luck.”
Rubina was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. with her family — an electrical engineer father and civil engineer mother — in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. She studied architecture and structural engineering in college. She met her husband, astrophysicist Anatoly Spitkovsky, while both were in graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. They came to Princeton in 2006 when he joined the faculty at the university. She worked at a Philadelphia firm for two years but left during the economic downturn and started her own practice.
Rubina has her office in a shared workspace, Tiger Labs. She is a member of the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB), a board of volunteer professionals that advises the planning board. “We review projects that will be presented to the planning board and provide professional feedback and comments,” she says. Her architecture practice, she says, includes “lots of exciting projects: several new houses, several remodels, and a spa at the shopping center.”
Niv did her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Tel Aviv University and received her PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008. She was appointed an associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton in 2008.
“We want to think proactively of what we want Princeton to look like in next 10, 15 years and suggest ideas on how to accommodate a changing world,” Niv says. “If we don’t start here, what are we talking about? Why are we outraged about elsewhere if in our own town we are not following our values.”