By LINDA MOSS
There is no easy, “silver bullet” solution to creating more affordable housing for seniors and retirees in Montclair, a panel of local real estate developers said this week.
“To address this problem is going to require real hard thinking that isn’t necessarily putting the burden on somebody else, it’s assuming responsibility for your own well-being and your own life,” developer Richard Polton told attendees at Seniorama 2017. “There’s no magical answer to the housing crisis here in Montclair … So it’s really time to think creatively and find ways to help people who really should be staying in their homes to stay in their homes or become part of a supportive community.”
“A lot of small things, no magic bullet, that’s fundamental,” added Alan Mallach, and urban planner and housing advocate who was the keynote speaker for the Seniorama event.
They made their comments during a forum Thursday that was the centerpiece of Seniorama, which addressed with the realities, challenges, opportunities and options for township residents to “age-in-place.” About 130 people attended the nearly day-long event, held by the township’s Senior Citizen Advisory Committee at the Salvation Army Citadel on Trinity Place.
Mallach, a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress in Washington and professor at Pratt Institute in New York, not only discussed what he considers to be the touchstones of senior housing but also moderated the real estate developers’ forum.
Panelists Steven Plofker, a Montclair developer and principal of Willow Street Partners LLC, and Polton, a principal of Value Research Group, both discussed the challenges of creating new housing in Montclair, where very little vacant land remains open, local officials can be difficult to work with and residents are adverse to change.
Polton’s most recent project is The Montclarian II apartment/retail building on Bloomfield Avenue.
“I appreciate the complexities of getting anything done here, and the fact that things do get done frankly is a major miracle,” Polton said. “It’s a tough town to operate in, for a variety of reasons. Housing costs are high, as you know. Everyone has an opinion, and mostly they’re not the same as the people who are trying to build and develop, and everyone is right.”
He and panelist Edward Martaglio, founder and president of RPM Development Group, said that a municipality has to have “the political will” to welcome, work together with and offer incentives to developers.
Plofker described how several projects he has in the works are for smaller locations that are not suitable for one-family homes but rather for smaller buildings, often with loft apartments, and townhouses.
He said that he is before the Township Zoning Board of Adjustment seeking approval to build four townhouses on a parcel of land he is purchasing from First Congregational Church of Montclair, a project that he claims will appeal to empty nesters who want to move out their large houses but don’t want to reside in an apartment.
Martaglio said that his focus is on affordable housing, buildings with 60 to 80 apartments, a quarter of which are meant for seniors. He applies for state subsidies for his projects and looks for Payments In Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, programs from municipalities.
Polton warned that some seniors will have to accept the harsh reality that in a town such s Montclair, where local property taxes are so high, it ultimately may not make sense to try to remain in the long-time family home.
“Property taxes are choking a lot of people who live in single-family homes, and they’re not going to change significantly over the next few years,” Polton said.
“There has to be a recognition that the single-family home that many of you have lived in for 30 or 40 years isn’t the best housing option for you anymore, and that what you’re paying in property taxes on a per-month basis could go a long way to renting a brand new apartment that’s fully accessible and new and well laid out,” Polton said. “You’d be relieved of the mortgage payments, whatever you’re paying to the banks.”
One of the issues that Montclair faces is finding ways to help seniors, as they retire and make less money and have more physical limitations, adapt and maintain their homes so they can continue to live in them, according to Mallach.
“Nobody should be forced out of their homes because of inability to make a repair,” he said.
The panel spent quite a bit of time debating the pros and cons of Montclair’s requirement that developers set aside 20 percent of their units to affordable housing, a mandate that builders often get dispensation from the municipality, to just 10 percent.
“The problem is the 20 percent is enough to scare off most for-profit developers,” Plofker said, that the economics don’t work unless a developer is some kind of subsidy from the state or township.
The easiest way to offset the financial burden of having to dedicate 20 percent of a project’s apartments to affordable housing is to permit that developer to have more units, increase the density, “but these are very controversial issues, generally,” Plofker said.
For the 40-unit Montclarian II, Polton said the township was flexible and creative so he could meet the 20 percent affordable housing quota. He is providing two affordable housing units in his new building and for six units he has a second building, The Montclarian, he is extending their expiring affordable-housing designation for 30 years and making upgrades to the units.
But Martaglio said that the township should be consistent and hold developers to the 20 percent affordable-housing mandate, despite their claims that it is too much of a financial burden.
“Developers are very adept at putting together a variety of financial forecasts to show doomsday on every project and why economic feasibility cannot be achieved with a particular affordability requirement,” he said.
The panel also fielded questions about why there is very little construction of condominiums, which some seniors might prefer to renting; rent control ;and whether the township’s many garden apartment complexes can be adapted to accommodate seniors.
Because of the supply of new apartments, and the preference of millennials to rent, there hasn’t been a market for condos, according to Plofker. In the commercial real estate world rental projects are valued higher than condos, he said.
Both he and Polton said condos are risky for developers, because they may not be able to sell the units. And financing is easier to get for apartment buildings, according to Polton.
Rent stabilization would be a huge disincentive for developers to build in Montclair, according to Plofker.
And updating aged garden apartment buildings to accommodate the elderly, or those who use wheelchairs, is a pricey proposition, according to Martaglio. It costs from $60,000 to $80,000 per one-bedroom unit to do such renovations, he said.