Elderly become hot property for suburbs

Younger families mean more schools, cars, garbage, services

March 25, 2001|By Iver Peterson | Iver Peterson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WEST WINDSOR, N.J. - Suburbs have always had one big idea, to be comfortable and safe places for families with children. But local politicians here and around the country are working hard these days to cater to a new generation of suburban VIPs - retired couples in the three- or four-bedroom houses down the street. People such as Fred and Mary Froehlich.

The Froehlichs love the Cape Cod house that Fred Froehlich built with his own hands 46 years ago, when West Windsor was a blue-collar farming community and not the vast plain of expensive houses it has become. They love the way their five grown children still come home for family gatherings. What they do not love are the taxes, $6,000 a year, which happens to be the same as Mary Froehlich's annual Social Security benefit.

So like a lot of suburban retirees, Fred Froehlich is trying to persuade his wife to move, in their case to a spot in Delaware where taxes are a tenth of what they are here. But Mary Froehlich is resisting, and although she may not yet know it, she has an ally in Carole Carson, the mayor of West Windsor.

Doing the math

For Carson has done the math and knows what it means when retirees move out and a new generation of families with children moves in. It means more children swelling enrollment at schools, more garbage to pick up, more cars on the road, more services.

Since it costs an average of $9,599 a year to send a child to the West Windsor-Plainsboro public schools - up nearly 28 percent in the past five years - even with state aid, one new child in the Froehlichs' house would more than eat up the taxes the house produces, and two more would present the school district with a $20,000 annual education bill that it does not have now.

The impact of enrollment growth is especially severe in growing suburbs like West Windsor, a bedroom community of 20,000 near Princeton, which has seen enrollment grow to 8,500, from about 5,000 10 years ago.

While a small increase in enrollment might be absorbed in existing classrooms, the growth here has required two school construction referendums, in 1993 and again in 1996, in which voters approved spending a total of $114.7 million to build two elementary schools, a high school and an addition to an existing middle school.

So like other communities around the country, West Windsor is scrambling to find ways to keep as many elderly residents in their homes as long as possible. As the population ages, the development is changing the face of suburbia.

`A tremendous asset'

"It's a matter of cost-effectiveness, especially in a community like ours," said Carson. "The seniors are a tremendous asset to any community, and if you are not able to retain them, you end up, one, without the values they represent, and two, with services that are much more expensive than if they stayed."

Carson is leading a statewide drive to encourage retirees to stay in their family homes by reducing the punishing level of property taxation that emerged, in conversation after conversation with retirees here, as the No. 1 complaint of empty-nesters.

In November, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities took up the cause and it is now lobbying the state Legislature to increase the income eligibility for a state program that freezes the taxes for people older than 65. A version of this idea has been introduced by Jack Collins, the speaker of the Assembly. It would double the income eligibility to $44,000, from $22,000. Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco recently proposed raising the property tax rebate for the elderly - a separate program - to $750, from $500, while urging the Legislature to consider Collins' legislation without quite endorsing it.

In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki has similarly proposed expanding the state's property tax rebate system for the elderly, raising the average benefit for married homeowners earning as much as $60,000 by an average of about $300 a year over the next five years.

In Connecticut, Gov. John G. Rowland devoted a large part of his budget message to the need to provide more generous in-home care for the elderly, saying that the longer they are able to remain self-sufficient, the less time they will spend in state-subsidized nursing homes.

Efforts such as these, plus perhaps the waning appeal of Sun Belt retirement communities for some elderly, have created a suburban phenomenon that some call the NORC, for "naturally occurring retirement community," said Elinor Ginzler, manager of the Long Term and Independent Living office of AARP, the association for middle-aged and elderly Americans.

"It is a setting where folks have aged in place," Ginzler said. "And people who live there recognize that in order to encourage that, you have to address the issues like taxes that accompany that development."

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