Downtowns are getting makeovers. Those who live there now shouldn’t get pushed out.

Published January 4, 2019
By Times of Trenton Editorial Board

Imagine that New Jersey designed a “land bank,” an agency that maintained a database of foreclosed, municipally-owned property that could be resold or redeveloped, turning an eyesore into a thing of beauty.

Imagine enhancing programs to prevent lead poisoning and efforts by municipalities to assess the health impact of major developments in our metropolises.

Imagine, too, creating a legal assistance fund to help renters facing the threat of eviction.

We don’t have to wonder “what if” any more. And we have a wide-reaching report just out from the Housing and Development Network of New Jersey to thank.

The study offers a blueprint for solving a challenge many of the state’s cities large and small grapple with: How to enliven urban areas while assuring less-affluent residents are not forced out of the communities they’ve called home for generations.

“No one should be priced out of their neighborhood in the name of progress,” said Staci Berger, the network’s president and CEO.

While many of our cities are experiencing building booms and newly flourishing downtowns, the recession of 2008 left many properties in foreclosure. The Garden State has been slower than some of its neighbors in shaking off the after-effects.

The report, titled “Thriving Cities: A New Urban Agenda,” grew out of a year’s worth of discussions that looked at what Jersey City, Newark and other cities have been doing – and should be doing -- to find a way out of the doldrums.

It looks at such areas as economic growth and workforce development; homeowner and tenant rights; civic leadership; and transportation systems crying out for upgrading – 13 areas in all.

Its suggestions should be required reading for state and local officials and policy-makers, particularly those representing urban areas already in the process of gentrifying.

The reports’ creators wisely recognize that the challenge is not one-dimensional, that what they call the “interconnectedness of problems and needs” demands sweeping vision to imagine and implement change.

At its core, it’s also a humane document. It acknowledges that cities are made up of people – people who have to pay their bills, get to their jobs, raise their children in healthy homes.

In pockets of the state, leaders are already carrying out some of the reports’ recommendations.

Earlier this year, the Newark legal firm of McCarter & English created a pro bono fellowship designed to help the city’s residents facing legal issues, such as eviction.

More recently, a new report from the Newark Forward initiative explored ways to assure that residents in all neighborhoods reap the benefits of city development and investment.

Meanwhile, a measure following up on that land-bank notion is already making its way through the state Legislature.

These are encouraging steps. They recognize that the process won’t be easy, but then again, nothing worth doing right is ever easy.