By Jaimie Julia Winters
Is the development boom in Montclair going to bring a sizable number of new students into the district, which, in turn, could create a need for more facilities? In the opinion of local developers, the answer is no, because the projects in Montclair are high-rise housing developments that, they contend, do not primarily appeal to families with children. In this line of thinking, high-rises instead attract single commuters, young couples and empty-nesters and therefore don’t add a significant amount of children to the public school system.
Those assertions are made by developers not just in Montclair, but also by developers seeking to build similar projects in other suburban communities in the New York metropolitan area. But are they accurate?
That, in essence, is the question the Center for Real Estate at Rutgers Business School sought to address in a study, “School-Age Children in Rental Units in New Jersey: Results from a Survey of Developers and Property Managers,” released last July. The institute wanted to shed light on an issue that planning boards confront over and again, in Montclair and elsewhere, as they hear more and more applications for the construction of apartment complexes of various styles and sizes.
In its study, the institute did not issue a simple yes or no answer. What it did provide was a guide that planning boards can use as they review various development projects, such as the ones now pending in Montclair.
That guide is built around the key variables — whether the project is a high-rise, a mid-rise, or a garden apartment complex, the number of bedrooms and whether the housing units will be offered at market rate or below that figure — that are part of any housing development, said Kevin Riordan, executive director at the Center for Real Estate at Rutgers Business School.
The Rutgers researchers found that the number of students increase with the number of bedrooms, that more families live in garden apartments than in high rises, and that the number of children decreases as the income level of apartment dwellers increase.
That all became part of the Rutgers formula that municipalities, including Montclair, can now use to help inform their decisions on the projects that developers are seeking to build.
Planning boards are advised not to take the impact on school budgets into land-use decisions. However, the mayor and council does consider new tax-revenue generation against costs of services and schools in its calculations for all new redevelopment projects, said Montclair planning board member Martin Schwartz.
“Building additional, single-family homes within Montclair is generally not smart tax policy today given the numbers of added school-age kids normally coming from each home that has an average tax assessment,” Schwartz said. In contrast, he said, “new multi-unit housing can be a positive revenue-generator, as well as bring added shoppers and users into the downtown areas if built there. These further support stores, businesses and restaurants and also help make those commercial assessments more valuable.”
Those assumptions presume, of course, that the new multi-unit housing does not bring an influx of school-age children that puts a strain on existing schools. Which raises the question of just what the current school-age numbers are in the existing Montclair housing developments.
THE MONTCLAIR NUMBERS
The Montclair School District does track the number of students living in multi-family developments, according to Superintendent Kendra Johnson. Those numbers, shown here in a survey of developments, vary considerably depending on the particular housing development:
- Union Gardens (Greenwood Avenue): 87 units, 49 students
- Montclair Residences (Bay Street): 163 units, 36 students
- Valley and Bloom: 258 units, 24 students
- Cedar Grove Apartments (12 Elm Street), 8 students
- The Siena (South Park Street): 101 units, 6 students
- Bellclair (Bell Street): 74 units, 6 students
- The Gates (Orange Road and Harrison Avenue): 29 units, 3 students
- Glenmont Square (Glenridge Avenue): 2 students
Students living in these complexes range from kindergarten age to senior-grade levels. For example, at Valley and Bloom, there are two students now in kindergarten, four in first grade, two in third, two in fourth, five in fifth, two in sixth, two in seventh, two in eighth, one in ninth, one in 10th and one in 11th. There is a similar spread of grade levels at Montclair Residences.
“Those numbers do surprise me,” said Riordan, the Rutgers director, who lives in Montclair. “I expected maybe kindergarten, first, second, but not middle-schoolers and high-schoolers.”
James Stefanile, who handles Montclair rentals for Berkshire Hathaway Realty, said only five percent of his clients have children and seek at least a three-bedroom unit. And those aren’t easy to find in Montclair complexes.
For instance, while Union Gardens has a small number of three- and four-bedroom apartments, 76 of the 87 units have no more than two bedrooms. Both Valley and Bloom and the Montclair Residences do not have any three-bedroom units, but do have two-bedroom units with dens.
Overall, Stefanile said, 70 percent of her rental clients are young couples without children, 15 percent are single and 10 percent are empty-nesters.
“In my experience, once a couple has a child, they want to buy a house,” he said, adding that rents for three bedroom units in Montclair, hovering around $3,100, are comparable to a mortgage payment on a house with a median price of $500,000.
The continuing popularity of Montclair with young couples seeking to purchase a home to raise their families in a town that is known for its culture, diversity, schools and lively downtown could have an impact on the school district in the future, he said. However, he noted, the stock of single-family starter homes remains competitive, and is static for now.
The examples used in the formula are two 200-unit developments.
One of them is a high-income, high-rise development where the average income of residents is $125,000, The 30 so-called “affordable” units in the complex (six one-bedroom, 17 two-bedroom and seven three-bedroom) will produce 20.5 school-age children, according to the Rutgers formula. Of the 170 market-rate units (85 one-bedroom, 76 two-bedroom and nine three-bedroom) the formula predicts just 2.4 school-age children.
The other is a middle-income, low-rise development of 200 units with an average income of $75,000. The Rutgers formula projects that its 30 affordable units (six one-bedroom, 17 two-bedroom and seven three-bedroom) will produce 20.5 students, while the 170 market-rate units (85 one-bedroom, 76 two bedroom and nine three bedroom) will produce 55.2 students figuring in low-rise, lower income generates more children.
How does this apply to the proposed 154-unit Lackawanna development that is still before the Montclair planning board? It is expected to have 31 affordable units (six efficiencies, 18 two-bedroom and 7 three-bedroom) and 123 market-rate units (12 efficiencies, eight studios, 74 one-bedroom and 29 two-bedroom) according to plans submitted early last year.
Riordan ran the numbers on the Lackawanna proposal using the Rutgers formula with high-rise, high-income model and came up with it generating 22 students — 21 from the affordable units and one from the market-rate units.
The Seymour Street development currently under construction will result in 200 units with 28 efficiencies, 46 studio units, 96 one-bedroom units, 26 two-bedroom units and four three-bedrooms. The planning department was not able to provide the breakdown of affordable units, saying only that 10 percent have been set aside as affordable. Using Lackawanna’s distribution and high-rise, high-income model, Riordan calculated 16 students, with 13 coming from the affordable units and three from market rate.
The Rutgers study also concluded that buildings built before 2000, such as Union Gardens, have a significantly higher number of school-age children living in market-rate units than more recently constructed buildings. The study also showed that on average, the number of school-age children per 100 affordable units is significantly higher than the number of school-age children per 100 market-rate units.
Schwartz said that, in general, condominiums could be a better revenue source for the township than rentals.
“Clearly, the Siena condos have a better rate of revenue return for the township from taxes than say rentals at Valley and Bloom today. There are many fewer kids in the Siena,” he said.
“Thus, one can calculate between anticipated costs from new kids coming into the school system against a total of new tax revenues to be generated from each type of housing development approved.”