How are your property values doing? If you’re like me here in Princeton Borough, you might be feeling a little smug, but with a touch of uneasiness in the air.
Smug because you are thinking that your property might be worth twice what it was five or six years ago, and smug because you know that — if you haven’t already done it, as I have — you could extract a home equity loan equal to the original mortgage on the place, or more.
Yet uneasy because first you know that what goes up can also come down. Losing 40 or 50 percent from your retirement fund during the Internet crash was painful. But imagine that you bought a $500,000 house with nothing down a few years ago, and just as you need to sell it the bottom falls out of the real estate market. That’s more than painful.
And uneasy also because you know that the property taxes are going up regardless of value ($9,529 in 2003, $11,231 in 2005 — or almost 10 percent per year for me), and you know that if you ever decided to sell the place, the chance of buying anything comparable to it (at least around here) without going further into debt are slim. Keeping up with the Jones’s is becoming a higher stakes game with every passing year.
I got thinking about housing values, measurable and otherwise, a few weeks ago at a presentation of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, the group that helps rich people and not so rich people and organizations give money away to worthwhile causes. The 15-year-old organization now manages and provides “charitable giving expertise” to more than 150 individual, family, and corporate charitable funds, non-profit agency endowments, and community partnerships. I sat in last month when it introduced some of the recipients of its grants.
Among them was Isles, the non-profit organization founded 25 years ago by a then senior at Princeton University, Marty Johnson, and a few other students and faculty who “took some of the theory we were studying and put it into action.” Amazingly the theory gave way to concrete results, and Isles continues to make steady progress to reverse the patterns of poverty in Trenton.
In his remarks at the PACF presentation, Johnson noted that bricks and mortar were not the only measures of success for his endeavor. “Social capital” was another measure. Later I called Johnson on the phone to ask him to amplify what he meant by social capital.
“Social capital,” Johnson said, “connotes the idea that relationships among people in their breadth and depth are as important a resource as money. And whe you are rebuilding a community physically [as Isles has been doing with some pretty dramatic results], it’s just as important to rebuild the connections among people.”
The lack of “social capital,” Johnson continued, leads to isolation, one of the cruelest oppressions in any community. “The American dream is usually thought of as a hope for independence,” Johnson said, “but inter-dependence is what we are really about. We really do need one another.”
Johnson noted that not only is social capital as important as investment capital, it’s also measurable. On Isles projects, for example, he and his staff are trying to ascertain exactly what impact their work has had on quality of life and community structure. They ask residents how many neighbors they know by first name, what their depth of participation is in the political process. Do they vote? Do they participate in neighborhood meetings? Do they get a chance to get heard or are they shouted down by the person with the loudest voice?
The measures used by Isles in Trenton reminded me of the Dalai Lama’s recitation called “The Paradox of Our Age.” Here’s how it begins:
We have bigger houses, but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees, but less sense;
more knowledge, but less judgment;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street
to meet the new neighbor.
So if your house is like mine, it’s gone up in value. But if your community is similar to mine, you probably can’t say the same for the social capital.
On Park Place in Princeton I know a few of my neighbors by first name, but I rarely get a chance to visit with any of them. They have never had a meal at my house, and I have never been to theirs. In a town that has only one political party, there’s not much of a process to participate in. No one is shouted down at meetings, but if you’re not a member of the inner circle, you probably aren’t heard in any case.
I don’t know anyone well enough to ask them if they vote, but I do know that on issues such as school budgets, the voter turnout is dismal in Princeton, as it is in most towns.
I doubt that the cash value of housing in Trenton has risen as fast as it has in affluent Princeton. But in terms of social capital, Marty Johnson’s hometown for the past 25 years may be doing as well as tony Princeton, or possibly even better.