Diversity in all its flavors is what makes South Orange an interesting place to live, and makes it different from many of the communities around us. We talk a lot about the diversity of the people here, and I suspect that diversity rests on a foundation more physical than just our welcoming attitude – it rests on the extraordinary diversity of neighborhoods in such a small town, and on the diversity of residential housing options and price points in those neighborhoods.
This foundations of our diversity is under threat. Our lowest priced homes, particularly on the east end of town around Seton Hall, are more valuable as group rentals to students than as family homes and are being slowly taken out of the inventory of residential options for long term residents. And the new housing we are approving is entirely upscale and expensive – whether townhouses at the Quarry or at Orange Lawn, or rental apartments on South Orange Avenue or Valley Street. These trends are eating away at the foundation of our diversity and over time will transform this town, despite our best intentions, into just another homogenous suburb.
Rick Jacobus has written an interesting article addressing the question at the heart of the second of these trends: Why Aren’t We Building More Middle Income Housing.
The problem he identifies is that high construction costs lead developers to build for wealthy consumers who can pay a premium in purchase price or rent. This is certainly what we are seeing in South Orange, where every new development targets high end price points. Given that the cost of materials and labor are relatively constant, Jacobus focuses on the role of regulations and zoning in driving up construction costs, and therefore driving developers to target high income consumers. Specifically he focuses on those regulations focused on aesthetics as a prime culprit. Ugly housing is cheaper to build – a rectangular building with no bump outs and a flat roof is the cheapest – but no one wants a building like that in their neighborhood and towns try to prevent that kind of construction through zoning, historical commissions, design boards, etc. We have all of those in South Orange and I suspect it would be difficult to build a square box duplex in any neighborhood here (for example) that would be affordable to a teacher, a retired couple, or a creative professional.
But Jacobus argues that it is only by allowing this style of building that developers can bring new housing to market that is affordable to middle income buyers. And in addition to a building of this style being itself more affordable, Jacobus notes that “ugly” buildings also hold down the prices of the surrounding neighborhoods, making them somewhat more affordable too. That is an interesting, positive, twist on the usual goal of suburban towns – to measure the success of a town in terms of constantly make neighborhoods more attractive to upscale buyers willing to pay ever more for homes there. South Orange has been touting recently that sale prices are increasing rapidly and setting records in some cases, as evidence of this being a great town. But as prices increase, don’t we risk becoming just another homogenous wealthy suburb? Can the diversity of South Orange survive in the face of higher and higher housing prices?
Here is an interesting piece questioning whether constantly increasing home prices is actually good: https://www.planetizen.com/node/91548/what-if-we-stopped-considering-housing-investment
And so we face a choice that will shape the future of our town. Continue on our current path, adding a substantial number of new high-priced housing units while reducing the number of low priced entry level units and we will slowly squeeze middle income families out of town, or take policy and planning steps to protect existing middle income housing and support the development of new middle income housing.
Now I know there are plenty of interesting wealthy people who we can attract to live here, and maybe we can be that one town that is able to be both uniformly wealthy and diverse. Maybe. But think of all the people we are excluding as we squeeze out middle income housing options: Teachers. Junior faculty from Seton Hall. Artists and creative professionals of almost any flavor. Retired people. Many young families. For South Orange to continue to be the diverse town that makes it so special we cannot exclude all of those people.
It is time we stop celebrating the newest $4,000 a month apartment or setting the highest sales price for a building, or having the fastest growing home prices in the area, and instead begin the hard work of figuring out what it will take to bring new middle income housing development to South Orange. Maybe Jacobus’ “ugly housing” idea will do it, or maybe we need a different plan – but unless we figure this out soon, South Orange will look more like so many other homogenous towns than the diverse suburban outpost that attracted many of us in the first place.