By Michael Gecan. and Al-Tariq Witcher
Published in the Star-Ledger/, on April 30, 2024

Just a few weeks ago, two Rutgers professors at the Center on Law, Inequality, and Metropolitan Equity (CLiME) released a groundbreaking report that almost no one has heard about. Elana Simon and David D. Troutt gave their work a clunky title – “Empowering Public Property: Simulating New Housing, Economic Development, and Greenspace Policy with Newark’s City-Owned Property Inventory.”

But don’t let that title stop you. The authors clearly and persuasively highlight the fact that the key to Newark’s renewal is hiding in plain sight: “City-owned property is a public asset that can be strategically leveraged as a policy tool to address Newark’s immense unmet needs for affordable housing,” they wrote.

It’s an elegant solution that applies to almost every other city in New Jersey and to other older, declining, formerly industrial cities in the entire region.

Their analysis “shows that affordable housing production could produce an estimated 2,568 units of affordable housing in standard zoning districts that permit residential uses.” There’s no need for rezoning, which takes time and adds costs to every development project. The city-owned land is just sitting there – waiting to be transformed from a vacant lot or debris-filled eyesore into new, healthy housing at sales prices or rents that existing Newark residents can afford.

The median rent in Newark is currently $1,900 a month. At that rate, most Newark residents – including working class individuals and families not yet in Newark who might like to own or rent there – are priced out of a housing market increasingly controlled by institutional investors, not Newark-born individuals and families.

While free, city-owned land is the key starting point for any affordable housing strategy, two other factors are also important. One is finding the subsidy to reduce the cost of housing so that it is within range of Newark residents. And the other, a bit wonkier and often overlooked, is the need to expand the hardworking professional staff in the local housing agencies so that proposals can be evaluated and approved more expeditiously.

We in Essex Together – an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation organizing network – are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the city-owned land that the Rutgers report focuses on.

Our sister affiliates in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx have built 6,500 all-affordable homes and apartments on city-owned land. They have turned areas every bit as troubled as the South and West wards of Newark into livable, safer, healthier communities. They have enabled African American and Hispanic buyers to build equity - $1.5 billion and counting – so that they can afford a decent life and look forward to a decent retirement. They have created revitalization without gentrification.

So why hasn’t Newark (along with so many other cities) failed to take advantage of the asset that city-owned property represents?

One reason is that the city has not had the time and resources to create an inventory of its land. That’s what Troutt, Simon, and the CLiME team have done.

The second reason is that Newark, like most cities, has accepted the mantra of the market builders: “Let us build and make a profit, with 80 or 90% of the units at market rate; and we’ll throw in a few affordable units at little or no cost to the city.” In short, mayors with strained budgets and often shrinking resources have felt forced to off-load the responsibility to rebuild their cities to the market. But that amounts to a license to gentrify.

The third reason is that the limited urban housing programs that do exist have compelled local community development entities to compete for scarce resources – generating a few units here and there, but never creating critical masses of new affordable housing that trigger the kinds of constructive chain reactions that East Brooklyn Congregations has generated. We have responded to several requests for proposals from the city, which would generate fewer than 100 units, if approved. But we and the city can do much more.

The study by Simon and Troutt points the way to a new era in affordable housing production in Newark. And the leaders and organizers of Essex Together, supported by the housing team that rebuilt large sections of New York, intend to push city, state, and federal officials out of their past habits and into a new era of community building and city renewal.

Michael Gecan is the senior advisor to Industrial Areas Foundation affiliates in Jersey City, Morris County, and Essex County -- which operate collectively as New Jersey Together -- and the author of Going Public.

Al-Tariq Witcher is the senior organizer with Essex Together, a non-partisan power organization made up of parishes, congregations, and non-profits in Essex County.