NEWARK, NJ - Newark Mayor Ras Baraka stood at a lectern today that was adorned with a sign that had one, simple message: “NO GENTRIFICATION.”
In the hopes of meeting that end, the city has created a new Equitable Growth Advisory Commission. It will draw up to 15 members from the community, academia, businesses and nonprofits to make recommendations to the city on topics about land use laws, housing, public housing and bidding.
“We do not want to wait for the market to dictate to us how to develop and move in our city,” Baraka said at a press conference today unveiling the commission. “We want to influence the market, but we also want to use some of those market forces against itself. So we're going to use some of those market forces to create something different than what the market kind of anticipates.”
Developers are looking to build in Newark, and it’s happening at a rate the city sometimes struggles to keep up with. Projects that get adjourned at zoning board meetings sometimes have to wait six months for the next available hearing because there are so many applications.
Developers, Baraka says, are eyeing Newark now as other locations like Jersey City and Hoboken become “saturated” with projects. Downtown Newark’s close proximity to Penn Station also makes it attractive.
Long-time Newark residents are worried they’ll be pushed out -- or priced out -- as newcomers move into the city. Preventing gentrification in the city they’ve grown up in is just wishful thinking, at least for one lifelong resident.
“You’re not going to stop it,” said Louis Shockley, 56, who is an outspoken critic of city officials during council meetings. He later added, “We’re giving these folks tax credits, and we’ve bent over backwards for these guys, and it hasn’t benefited Newarkers.”
Projects like One Theater Square, a new luxury high-rise across from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, received funding from the city. That project received a grant and revenue allocation bond worth $12 million from the city. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority awarded the developer $33 million.
There were 24-affordable housing units set aside in the high-rise, and more than a whopping 700 people applied.
That high number isn’t shocking either, considering that the median household income was about $35,000 last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. A study by Rutgers University-Newark also found that over 20,000 Newark households pay more than 50 percent of their household income on rent, making them “extremely rent burdened.”
But Baraka says those types of projects in the Downtown will eventually help subsidize other projects throughout the city. Still, more is being done to prevent the displacement that’s often found when an influx of new development comes to an area.
“Newark must not become another Brooklyn,” Baraka warned in a statement that was handed out to reporters at the press conference.
Last year, city council approved an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which required all new residential and mixed-use developments with more than 30 units to set aside 20 percent of apartments as low-income housing. Since the new ordinance was implemented, 18 such projects were approved that added over 850 affordable units to the city, said Office of Affordable Housing Manager Al-Tariq Shabazz.
The mayor created the affordable housing manager position after the inclusionary zoning ordinance was passed to deal with the rising number of subsidized housing.
“These measures that are taken are not just to mitigate what some may see as the adverse effects of some of the development that is happening,” Shabazz said at a press conference unveiling the new commission. “But these measures are essential to the development of the City of Newark because with buildings and roads and bridges, the most important piece of infrastructure in the City of Newark that we have are going to be the people of Newark.”
McCarter & English, a Newark-based law firm, dedicated a fellowship position to provide pro-bono legal services to low-income tenants who are facing eviction. The creation of a similar, yet larger program in the city has stalled for months, but a final vote on the initiative should come before the end of December.
All of Newark is classified as an area in need of rehabilitation, which allows the city to appoint developers rather than going through the traditional request for proposal process. Other locations throughout the city are classified as areas in need of redevelopment, which allows the city to use eminent domain to influence development.
The mayor also alleviated concerns that too many regulations may keep developers away. Preventing gentrification is not synonymous with saying no to all prospective projects, Baraka said.
"If we just basically say no to everything, then we miss the boat,” Baraka said. “So the idea is that we have to have some level of development or you can't distribute wealth that you don't have. So you have to bring wealth into the city and redistribute in a way that most of us can benefit from.”
The 15-member advisory committee will be chosen in January and each member will serve a two-year term.
One resident was concerned that members would only be selected based upon politics, but still had hopes residents' recommendations would be heard when it came to development.
“Don’t get me wrong we’re not against redevelopment,” said Munirah El-Bomani, who often speaks out against city officials. “Our issue is not having a seat at the table and not having our recommendations honored. Most of the time there’s no public engagement until they already have the fix in.”
The city is now accepting applications for the advisory committee until Jan. 15. Those who are interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org.