What Can Trenton Do About the Abandoned Housing Problem?

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What Trenton Can Do About the Abandoned Housing Problem?

By Noor Azeem, Danny Gallagher, and George Tatoris

Driving through the streets of Trenton, among the historic buildings and hustle of people there is one sight that is ever-present: the more than 3000 vacant properties that dot the cityscape. While these abandoned lots have the potential to be used once again, for now they simply sit, sucking the city’s money into maintenance costs, driving up neighborhood insurance prices, and driving down the value of nearby homes.

The only use they do see comes in the harboring of delinquents, who can use the vacant lots as a safe haven to congregate and behave recklessly. For instance, the Josephs, a family of five, found themselves relocated against their will due to a fire caused by vandals in an adjacent abandoned building. Their home suffered heavy damage, and was almost immediately vandalized and looted, forcing the Josephs out of their home.

Although the incident in question occurred in 2011, similar events suggest that the problem remains. For instance, this year an abandoned building suspected of being a drug house also burned down, damaging the floors above along with it. In the two and half years between the incidents, however, there has certainly been a lot of effort, and with it, a lot of progress.

Three thousand properties is a considerable amount, and it has not gone unnoticed by the leaders of Trenton. All of the mayoral candidates have agreed that this is an issue they’ll need to address before the problem further escalates. Although every candidate has a different plan of action, many refer to the work of the Trenton Neighborhood Restoration Campaign (TNRC), a coalition of stockholders that work to eliminate blight and abandonment in Trenton. Since 2011, they have been using their limited resources to cut down on the number of abandoned properties.

The TNRC has issued both a policy platform (which can be viewed here) detailing their methods of helping solve the vacant property issue, as well as a statement (which can be viewed here) highlighting work which has already been done and should be continued.  Information about the TNRC can be found on their website, www.trentonnrc.org.

One of the tools intended to fix this problem isw that is already on the books: the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which allows the city of Trenton to acquire properties in the areas with the most potential for redevelopment. Not only does the acquisition of these properties result in a chance to either restore or destroy them, but many owners who were not previously in the picture will step up and maintain their properties to avoid being put on the list. Organizations like the TNRC hope to push the administration of Trenton to utilize this powerful tool more than it has been used in the past.

Another potential redevelopment strategy is the use of land banking, which has already been showcased in cities like Philadelphia. Land banking involves creating an efficient organization that acquires properties and transfers them to other parties for redevelopment and reuse. While this has been suggested to be useful, especially for large lots, it would also be expensive, as Trenton would have to own and maintain the properties it acquires until it can redistribute them.

According to Julia Taylor of Isles Inc., a Trenton-based organization devoted to addressing community development and environmental issues, there are also resident-driven plans being set in motion. With support from grants given by the New Jersey Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program, some collaborations are moving on with plans to restore abandoned properties. The East Trenton Collaborative, Old Trenton Neighborhood, and Trenton Historic Development Collaborative Neighborhood all have grants to implement their programs. These programs are community based, focused on interacting with citizens to understand their needs and working with them on progressive change.

Art and culture can also play a huge role here, especially because “Trenton has a lot of history and culture to draw on,” according to Taylor. An aesthetically pleasing city is always a more desirable place to live.  This results in more residents and businesses flocking to the city, and allows the vacant properties to be put to use. Groups like the Sage Coalition, which paints murals around the city, help to develop a vibrant and attractive culture. Organizations like the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as well as programs in Newark have also invested in beautifying vacant lots to increase their value as well and create a nicer local environment. Finally,,Trenton’s administration can market and utilize the city’s existing strengths, like cheaper housing stock along the Northeast corridor as well as along the riverfront. When it comes down to it, much of the solution involves simply making Trenton a nicer place to live.

There’s a lot Trenton can do about the abandoned building problem, though it will take a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of resources. But progress is already being made, and many are hopeful. As Julia Taylor said, “the chips seem to be falling into place. There are great things happening, strong collaborations are continuing and forming. It seems like the time is right to push some innovative revitalization efforts forward.”

 

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