Dunellen, NJ: Affordability, with a “quaint little town”

When Dean Mehmood decided it was time to move his family out of Brooklyn, where his parents had been renting for 35 years, he took them on a drive through central New Jersey, looking for somewhere affordable and welcoming. He found it in the one square mile borough of Dunellen in the county of Middlesex.

“There was something calling my mother to this area and this house,” Mr. Mehmood, a 27-year-old R&B singer, said of the home he bought in December for $327,000. “She just had to have it.”

“It’s their first home. It’s a big deal,” he said of the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom 1940s ranch he now shares with his 60-year-old retired parents, Tariq and Asia, and his young brother. “When we signed the papers and got the keys, the first thing my mum said to me was, ‘I didn’t think I would live long enough to own my own house.'”

Nestled between larger and more well-known communities like the Brunswicks and the Plainfields, Dunellen feels like a throwback to the mid-20th century, with its square central park and bustling train station, surrounded by churches and unique shops that have there for decades. But this image is about to change, with the opening of a long-awaited development project soon.

“We have a quaint little town, but there’s also a new energy in town,” said Mayor Jason Cilento, 32, who grew up in the borough. “A lot of the houses are older, with wraparound porches. It’s affordable to come in and live here, but it’s also an investment in the future.

Besides Dunellen’s affordability, another draw for families like the Mehmoods, who are of Pakistani descent, is the area’s diversity, which Mehmood said was “like being in Brooklyn.” In fact, less than half of the borough’s 7,600 residents are white, according to the 2020 census; 32% are Hispanic, 12% are black and 7% are Asian.

Grace Cordero also found Dunellen welcoming when she and her husband, Samuel Cordero, moved there in 2011 from nearby Piscataway, buying a four-bedroom ranch home for $250,000.

To illustrate the borough’s sense of community, she described what happened last summer when a nearby house caught fire. “We all came down to help. People came back with wagonloads of food, clothes and shoes,” said Ms. Cordero, 40, a human resources manager for a fire protection services company. “It’s like that here. Everyone helps each other, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.

Moving to Dunellen had a similar effect on Jeremy Rettig. For many years, Mr Rettig, 34, a single father and longtime tenant, saw no point in buying a house. But when he decided to move out of his apartment in New Brunswick, NJ, in 2020, he found a 1917 Craftsman-style home in Dunellen that he called “so unique I had to buy it.” .

Since closing the three-bedroom home in August for $310,000, he has joined the downtown management committee and participated with two of his three daughters in the borough’s communal garage sale. Owning your own home in Dunellen, said Mr Rettig, an insurance adjuster, “did something for me emotionally – it grounded me”.

He added: “It was a different feeling, like I was part of a community. I’m surrounded by people with good hearts and good will, looking out for each other.

Located approximately 35 miles southwest of Manhattan, Dunellen is bounded by Green Brook to the north, with Bonnygutt Brook running through the southern part of the borough. It is crossed by Route 28 and the New Jersey Transit Raritan Valley Line; Dunellen station marks the heart of the small but bustling town centre.

Radiating from the center are residential neighborhoods with small settlements, Cape Cods, ranches, and split-levels, most on lots less than one-fifth of an acre. Larger colonials with more land can be found on a few streets.

Because Dunellen sits in a valley — between two creeks that overflow during big storms like last September’s Hurricane Ida — about a quarter of the 2,189 homes are in FEMA-designated flood zones.

Barbara Seif, a broker with ERA Boniakowski Real Estate who has lived in the borough for nearly all of her 73 years, said it was quite a deterrent to potential buyers. “When people buy a house here, the first thing they ask is, ‘Does it need flood insurance?’ It used to put people off but since Covid hit it doesn’t seem to matter,” said Ms Seif, who described the Dunellen housing market as “very tight”.

But the tight market may be about to ease, with the planned opening this summer of the initial phase of Dunellen Station, a $105 million mixed-use project that will bring the first new housing to Dunellen since several decades. Near the train station, on a 20-acre site once occupied by a printing press, the project will add 252 rental apartments, 130 townhouses and 9,200 square feet of retail space to the borough’s downtown core.

Robert Fourniadis, senior vice president of Prism Capital Partners, the developer of apartments and commercial spaces, called Dunellen a “diamond in the rough”.

“It’s a charming little town in a great location,” he says.

Currently, housing inventory is almost non-existent in Dunellen, Ms. Seif said, with no rentals available and a handful of homes for sale; as of mid-January, these included a two-bedroom colonial listed at $259,900 and a new four-bedroom home listed at $724,900.

According to the Central Jersey Multiple Listing Service, the average price for the 57 homes sold in Dunellen in 2021 was $389,000, compared to an average of $325,000 for the 89 homes sold in 2020.

Rental rates have also risen in recent years, Ms. Seif said, from an average in 2019 of around $1,275 per month for a two-bedroom apartment to nearly $1,800 today. Apartments in the new development will rent for around $1,900 for one bedroom and $2,200 for a two-bedroom, Fourniadis said, with 58 of the units earmarked for affordable housing. The townhouses, built by K. Hovnanian Homes, are listed between $485,000 and $535,000.

Washington Memorial Park, which covers just over an acre in the heart of downtown, hosts recreational activities and outdoor summer concerts, as well as the annual high school graduation ceremony.

A block away at the Dunellen Hotel is the popular Rathskeller, where guests can sit under hand-hewn beams and order a craft beer or Reuben lobster sandwich. Across Washington Avenue, at Planet Chicken, Peruvian chicken is on offer. And until recently, the Dunellen Cinema Cafe on North Avenue allowed patrons to dine while watching a movie; the theater closed last year, a victim of Covid and Hurricane Ida, but the pub, Zupko’s Tavern, remains open for pitchers and pizza.

Also on North Avenue is the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center, which has hosted Olympic ping pong players and is a popular place to host parties. Four doors down is the equally popular Eight on the Break, a pinball and pool hall that opened in 1973 and is home to the New Jersey Pinball League, which holds weekly tournaments.

John P. Faber School serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade. They transfer to Lincoln Middle School from sixth to eighth grade, then to Dunellen High School.

The high school has only 360 students, making it more of a private school, with nine advanced-level classes and plenty of extracurricular activities. Average SAT scores for the 2019-20 school year were 547 in reading and writing and 534 in math, compared to national averages of 536 in each. Secondary students can take part in a dual degree program at Middlesex College or can apply to one of the county’s vocational or technical high schools.

Private school options include Mount Saint Mary Academy, an all-female secondary school in Watchung; Pingry School, which has K-12 in Basking Ridge; and Saint Joseph, an all-male college preparatory high school in Metuchen.

New Jersey Transit provides train and bus service to and from Dunellen. The train ride to Penn Station in Manhattan takes about an hour and 10 minutes; direct service is available from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and a switch in Newark is required at other times. Tickets are $12.25 one way or $353 for a monthly pass. Buses 113 and 114 travel from South Washington Avenue to the Manhattan Port Authority in about an hour and a half; one-way tickets are $10.75 and a monthly pass is $267.

In 1925, having outgrown its Manhattan location, the Art Color Printing Company moved to Dunellen, attracted by the ease of transportation. With 1,100 employees at its peak, the factory printed 10 million magazines a month, including titles like True Romance, True Detective Mysteries and Modern Screen. In 1931, WF Hall Printing Company of Chicago purchased majority ownership of the business and continued to operate until 1968. It is now the site of the Dunellen Station housing development.

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