How to Revitalize NJ Cities Without Pushing Out Residents

Aired December 12, 2018
By Michael Symons

A new report on community development in New Jersey’s cities puts a lot of emphasis on the community part of that concept: Making sure that as investment helps revitalize long-suffering urban centers, residents aren’t displaced.

With nearly 100 ideas across 13 priority areas developed over the past year, “Thriving Cities: A New Urban Agenda” from the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey lays out an ambitious and often interconnected revitalization strategy.

Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, said that new urban agenda is development without displacement of current residents – uplifting an area without uprooting people.

“Creating a community that anybody would want to live in but that people who are there today can continue to live in,” Della Fave said.

The recommendations are wide-ranging – from tax credits and incentives focused on low-income neighborhoods to requirements to hire local residents for major redevelopment projects to increasing the minimum wage to allowing municipalities to impose additional taxes and fees to raise revenues.

There is also a section on improving health of city residents, noting that a person born in Trenton has a life expectancy 14 years shorter than one born a dozen miles away in Princeton.

DeAnna Minus-Vincent, assistant vice president for social impact and community investment at RWJBarnabas Health, said that’s why RWJBarnabas changed its mission last year to go beyond its clinical practice.

“Like the rest of the country, we are poorer and sicker than we’ve ever been. And it’s because of the social determinants of health. We need to figure out not just what happens within our clinical walls but what happens outside our clinical walls.”

The report suggests inspecting one- and two-family homes for lead paint and mold when they are sold or rented and requiring landlords of multi-family homes to adopt smoke-free home policies as part of lease agreements.

The report suggests the state government create a statewide program providing lawyers to low-income tenants facing eviction, along the lines of what’s now being done for undocumented immigrants who face deportation. Della Fave said Newark is on the verge of doing that in the city.

Also among the ideas in the report is the concept of a property tax freeze or deferral for long-time or low-income residents – people who have a hard time keeping up financially as their area’s property values increase.

“It’s starting to price people out of staying in the home that they’ve lived in for 30 or 40 years,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network.

Berger said Boston and Philadelphia have made efforts in those areas. Property taxes could be frozen, along the lines of what’s available for some senior citizens, or limited to a portion of income, which sounds similar to the "circuit-breaker" idea then-Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno proposed last year as a candidate for governor, although her plan wasn’t limited to low-income city residents.

“To make sure that people who have lived in places that are now changing and have more investment, that those folks have a fair shot at staying there. Nobody should be priced out in the name of progress,” Berger said.

The report’s specific proposals weren’t endorsed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, but deputy chief policy adviser Tai Cooper said she’ll bring its ideas back to the Statehouse.

“This really can serve as a blueprint. This is critically important work,” Cooper said. “Cities are the heartbeat of this state. They’re what drives us. That’s where so much energy comes from.”