As published on NJ.com
For decades, dreams of a Newark renaissance have been shattered by the reality of major challenges. We have a high poverty rate and low number of homeowners. Even the massive public investment in the Prudential Center and the Performing Arts Center seemed unable to light a fire under the local economy.
As the city and the nation recovered from the recession, momentum began to build. Panasonic and Audible moved their corporate headquarters to Newark, and Prudential built a gleaming new tower. Parts of downtown awoke, with new luxury apartments, celebrity chef-owned restaurants, Whole Foods and a Nike store.
Real estate speculation, especially downtown, resulted in massive sales like the Pavilion apartments, a $70 million project, and Newark’s Gateway Center, a $300 million project.
Rents began to rise for both long-time residents and commercial tenants. Empty storefronts popped up on Broad Street and Ferry Street. The local flavor of Halsey Street was replaced with chain restaurants and upscale apartments. Artist spaces disappeared.
At the same time, there were fewer public housing availability. Buildings with low rents deteriorated to the point that the city shut them down as uninhabitable. Many Newarkers who had a decent place to live began to wonder if there was an affordable future here for them.
When Mayor Ras Baraka was elected in 2014, he began a civic discussion of how to prevent Newark from becoming the next Brooklyn (or Jersey City, or Hoboken). It is a very important discussion.
The mayor and the city council passed a series of policies that point in the right direction, including inclusionary zoning, tax abatement standards, and right to counsel for low-income residents facing eviction. The mayor has even talked about a guaranteed income for residents.
A group of residents, organized as Homes for All Newark, gathered 1,800 signatures to successfully strengthen the city’s rent control ordinance.
By 2019, there were very few results to show for all these good intentions. The city administration was routinely exempting projects from complying with the affordable housing requirements of the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund wasn’t incentivizing new affordable housing, and only 519 properties were registered with the Rent Control Office.
During the first six years of the Baraka administration, there had been four directors of Economic Development. No one had focused on implementing and enforcing major initiatives needed to ensure affordable housing for all Newark residents. The Office of Economic Development had become a deal-making enterprise, facilitating any and all variances and exemptions developers wanted.
In the summer of 2019, the mayor announced the hiring of a new deputy mayor for economic development - the fifth one to hold this position. There was a high degree of cynicism among city hall observers based on the high turnover and poor results of the previous directors.
Allison Ladd was recruited from Washington, DC. In a few months, the change is dramatic. Ms. Ladd’s resume and accomplishments include:
- Roots in community activism, understanding the need to engage residents in developing housing policies that meet their needs.
- Expertise in housing development and finance, with several new low-income buildings already in the works.
- Smart ideas on dedicated funding streams to scale up very-low income projects.
- Examining new legislation like rent control for small local businesses that are already at risk of being pushed out.
- Champion of government transparency, with major improvements in the department’s website making details of every new project easily accessible to residents.
- Decisions that are driven by metrics and results.
- Honesty about department shortcomings, already increasing the number of buildings registered for rent control by 584% and beefing up the code enforcement staff.
- Filled key staff positions with highly qualified people, in some cases promoting experienced individuals within the department.
- A vision for how we move forward together on the broadly shared goals of housing justice.
It is rare that one person can make such a difference in such a short period of time, especially in transforming a city bureaucracy. No city has succeeded in achieving development without displacement. Deputy Mayor Ladd has only been here six months, but she is leading us in the right direction.
John Goldstein is a facilitator for Homes For All Newark, a coalition of community organizations and activists supporting housing policies that allow development without displacing current residents. Coalition members are renters and homeowners from all parts of the city.