Newark, NJ - The city is using the power of eminent domain to reduce the number of condemned homes and vacant lots scattered throughout the West Ward.
The redevelopment plan for the West Ward was introduced in 2016 and encompasses properties from the border of Irvington to South 13th Street between South Orange Avenue and 16th Avenue. One of the main goals of the plan is to support new housing developments that are similar to the two and three-family homes that are currently there.
City council on July 11 approved a measure allowing the planning board to conduct a preliminary study to identify properties in the plan that are in need of redevelopment. A property that is identified as condemned will then become city property that can be sold to a developer at a low rate.
For the city’s Economic and Housing Development Director Carmelo Garcia, the redevelopment plan is a balancing act. The plan, Garcia said, is transformative, but also allows Newarkers currently living here to reap the benefits of the area’s revitalization by encouraging local developers to become landlords.
“This is community development at its best,” said Garcia, who is also a deputy mayor.
The plan's area has been hit hard by the 2008 housing market crash and a significant number of properties are now worth less than the amount owed on it. A 2016 RealtyTrac report cited in the plan found 147 properties in the plan area were in pre-foreclosure. City records also showed 65 parcels in the plan are owned by the city or the housing authority with tax liens for delinquent property taxes owed on them.
"We're trying to rebuild the community through getting these abandoned properties on the tax rolls and lessening places for people to legally dump,” said West Ward Councilman Joseph McCallum, Jr.
Fixtures that are often taken for granted in other neighborhoods, like sit-down restaurants, were non-existent during the time of the 2016 plan, and the nearby West Side Park was perceived by some as unsafe.
The redevelopment plan hopes to change that.
SOME RESIDENTS ALREADY SEE CHANGE
Some residents along South 16th Street noted the roads in the area have begun to be repaved, which is already a small sign of improvement to the area that’s dotted with boarded-up homes.
Bonielle Smith, who has been living in the area for about a year, said she’s noticed at least three buildings near her home beginning to be renovated.
“It’s good,” Smith said as she sat on her stoop and watched two young children playing in front of her residence. “It gives people opportunity.”
But just up the block from Smith, another resident had some reservations. Montaque, who didn’t want to use his first name, said the vacant and condemned houses on his street have looked like that for about four years.
The city’s Fourth Police Precinct sits in the redevelopment plan. The 51-year-old lifelong resident of Newark said the area wasn’t a good place to raise children.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon,” he said, referring to the boarded-up homes being fixed on his block. “It’s going to start but even though it’s right next to the police department...” he started saying before resigning to shaking his head.
Some of the changes in the neighborhood may be due to the city in 2015 designating a number of properties in the plan as areas in need of redevelopment. The city council on July 11 also moved to sell some of those properties to different developers at under-assessed value.
The city is selling those properties to developers at a lower rate because after sitting vacant for 15 to 20 years, no would pay for the assessed value, McCallum said.
“We need the redevelopment of these properties and we need construction of new properties, he said. “That's the bottom line.”
While residents in the plan wanted to see a safer community, some were also concerned that the plan might push people out of the area.
The West Ward councilman said very rarely is there someone who is living in a home that may be deemed as condemned and become city-owned. “We’re not equipped to be landlords,” McCallum said.
Still, the plan says the city or its agencies would be responsible with assisting occupants of a condemned property to relocate. The city would have to prepare a Workable Relocation Assistance Plan (WRAP) that has to be approved by the state Department of Community Affairs before physically relocating any households or business, the plan said.
Any compensation or assistance would be provided according to the approved WRAP.
Garcia, the EHD director, said the goal is of the plan is to help a distressed community and help local developers get off the ground.
Banks that seize a home sometimes leave the property unchecked, creating blighted spots in the neighborhood, Garcia said. Identifying a condemned home that allows the city to own the property is a technical step in a process that helps residents "in their struggles,” he said.
“The goal is not to acquire the property while the people are there and kick them out,” Garcia explained. “The goal is to help them (residents) stop the bleeding with the underwater mortgage with the predatory lender.”
McCallum, the area’s councilman, stopped short of saying the new or renovated homes would be rented out at market-rate, but did say that some affordability would be built into them. He said three-family homes are preferred so that locals could live in the homes and also rent them out.
“We want local people to be able to afford the homes, that meaning they can afford to live in a property and get two rents,” the councilman said. “So that's why we're focusing on three-family homes. That's how we're going to keep people in the community, by being able to build the new homes.”