Camden belated in blight offensive


Leadership turnover kept worried residents waiting after an '04 law. Mayor Dana L. Redd has vowed action.

April 17, 2011|By Claudia Vargas, Inquirer Staff Writer

When Norma Bell moved to Hayes Avenue in the Cramer Hill section of Camden 27 years ago, it was a nice, tree-lined block.

Then families migrated to the suburbs, or those rooted in Camden started dying of old age, including Bell's next-door neighbor Rita L. Walker in 1991.
No one ever claimed her house.

Walker's home is one of more than 4,000 properties estimated to be abandoned in the once thriving city. The New Jersey Abandoned Property Rehabilitation Act, enacted in 2004, gave municipalities the power to expedite the rehabilitation of such properties.

But with constant leadership turnover, the act was never properly executed in Camden.

The city's master database listing about 1,500 abandoned properties has not been updated since last year. And though a separate list of four properties was started in July as a pilot to the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, the city is just getting around to awarding a contract to purchase two of the properties, which make up one large house in Cramer Hill.

Vacant dwellings, like the one attached to Bell's home, continue to deteriorate, driving property values down and increasing safety hazards in what already is one of the nation's poorest and most dangerous cities.

Mayor Dana L. Redd announced Thursday that Camden's new Business Growth and Development Team would handle all inquiries on vacant properties from interested developers or annoyed neighbors. Having key department leaders in redevelopment working as a team should make for a seamless process in condemning or saving the thousands of abandoned properties, she said.

Redd's enthusiasm was well-received by residents and community leaders who for the last few years have been imploring the city to do something about the blight.

"Part of our job is to continue to hold their feet to the fire," said the Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church and a member of Camden Churches Organized for People.

Bell and other residents are desperate. The decrepit structure has slightly caved into Bell's home, causing leaks in her kitchen. The vacant shell has attracted squatters, rodents, and mounds of garbage for more than a decade, she said.

The city finally boarded it up about five years ago, Bell said.

Though 200 vacant properties make up only about 6 percent of Cramer Hill's total units, the neighborhood is one of the areas that residents are trying to make vibrant.

"People are trying to fix their homes. They are putting sidings and little balconies," Carmen Torres said in Spanish. She and her husband, Victor, have lived on Concord Avenue for 24 years.

The boarded-up, light-blue, two-story house diagonally across from the Torres household sticks out amid the trimmed lawns, clean driveways, and bright doors and windows. The house is on a running list of Cramer Hill homes that CCOP has tried to get the city to do something about.
CCOP has offered to buy some of the abandoned properties and gives advice on the legal tools available. It even held an ugly-house campaign to raise awareness. But it has seen little in return, members said.

Other groups expressed the same frustrations.

In years past, when the Cramer Hill Community Development Corp. finally got the attention of someone in City Hall, "three or six months later they would be gone," executive director Manuel Delgado said. "We were in limbo because of all the transitions."

After the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act was adopted, the Camden Community Development Association pushed City Council to introduce an ordinance to create an abandoned-properties list, as outlined in the act.

John Kromer, former acting executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency, a municipal center for development policy and programming, said the abandoned-properties act was a "great opportunity." But it didn't get the attention it needed from the various administrators in charge of Camden during the state takeover, which lasted from 2002 to January 2010.

"To take advantage of the act you need leadership and coordination," Kromer said. "That didn't exist in Camden at the time."
Members of the Camden Community Development Association often went to City Hall to question the use of the act only to get the same responses, CCDA executive director Liza Nolan said.

"Comments we got were: 'We have to look into it more.' 'It will cost a lot of money,' " she said.

When the Redd administration started the pilot abandoned-properties list in July, two of the four properties had been identified by the Waterfront South neighborhood-based nonprofit Heart of Camden as properties it wanted to rehabilitate.

Because of the lack of interest from previous administrators, Heart of Camden executive director Helene Pierson didn't think putting the properties on the pilot list would speed up the acquisition.

"I hedged my bets. I didn't think the city was going to be efficient with execution of the act, so I purchased the tax certificates as well," Pierson said via e-mail. She is in the process of foreclosing the two Waterfront South properties.

Redd said that since stepping into office 15 months ago, she had been working to develop a plan for the city's abandoned properties. She looked at Newark, N.J., as a model but wanted to customize a plan for Camden.

In 2005, the Tax Lien Financing Corp. was established to buy and sell liens of more than 5,000 properties. The corporation soon will be disbanded, and the city will take back the leftover liens - 4,100. Redd said the TLFC transition had to be coordinated into her abandoned-properties acquisition plan, which ranges from tax foreclosures to eminent domain.

City officials could not say how many properties they plan to start with when they assemble the abandoned-properties list under the 2004 act.
When Newark produced its first list in 2007, it started with close to 400 properties. Newark Director of Affordable Housing Mike Meyer said the act had been very helpful in addressing the city's 1,000 vacant buildings.

Of the 519 properties that have made Newark's list, 451 continued through the process, and so far nearly half of those have been rehabilitated, acquired for redevelopment, or demolished. The goal in using the act is to put properties back in service, Meyer said.

Because of the economic downturn and shrinking budgets, municipalities all over the state and country are struggling to deal with abandoned properties.

"Communities that succeed view properties as an asset, not a nuisance," said Dan Kildee, president and founder of the Center for Community Progress, a community-revitalization advocacy center based out of Washington and Flint, Mich.

Kildee, who is known for his work on abandoned properties in his hometown of Flint, said the worst thing a city could do was sell off tax liens to private investors because the city then had no control over the properties.

"In Flint . . . we had properties that were abandoned for decades, and now they are jewels," he said.