When I decided to move to Newark a year ago my expectations weren’t all that high. I had heard and read about Newark’s poverty and downward economic spiral, the lack of jobs and decent housing. I was even aware of Newark’s reputation as the car theft capital. But despite all the bad press, I made Newark my new home.
My new residence was on Irvine Turner Boulevard, one of Newark’s main streets. This particular part of town seemed to reflect all of the negative things I’d heard. There were numerous dilapidated buildings that should surely be condemned and a church affiliated school just three doors down from a “package” store. My morning commute traversed several blocks along Irvine Turner Blvd., from Clinton Ave. over to I-78. One block was especially disheartening: The area between West Bigelow and Runyon streets looked completely neglected. The hard, gray stone and brown brick of the buildings (circa 1950s) with their broken and boarded-up windows seemed cold and impenetrable, even uninhabitable. Yet these were the dwellings of impoverished adults and children. On my evening commute, I would speed down Hillside Ave. when approaching Bigelow and Clinton. Most nights I felt like a sitting duck – at times the only car waiting for the light to change.
Weeks after moving, a surprising thing caught my attention and instantly changed my view of this neglected and depressed block: the crossing guards who greeted children each morning with smiles, hugs and pats on the back as they made their way to school. I smiled the first time I saw that. Until that moment I hadn’t been aware of a sense of community in this area of Newark. That connectedness of people had escaped me. My outlook changed and I began to notice the people who lived on this block rather than the block’s appearance.
Seven months ago I began working for Shelterforce and my commute changed. I didn’t have to make the daily trip down Irvine Turner or Hillside. Recently though, I ventured down those streets again and was amazed to see that there had been some dramatic changes. The continuous row of gray, dilapidated buildings with broken and boarded-up windows was gone. In their place were brand new two- and three-family homes – stand-alone units with two-car garages, wrought iron fences and porches. The holiday lights and decorations made the whole block seem especially inviting, yet unfamiliar and out of place. While stopped at the red light at the Bigelow and Hillside intersection, I focused on the Santa Clauses and the reindeer and candy cane decorations in the yards. I momentarily forgot that I was the only car around waiting for the light to change. As I continued on, I wondered what could have brought about such a tremendous transformation in so little time. I wanted to know who was responsible – a neighborhood CDC, the city, private developers? Were the homes affordable and available to the low-income families who already lived there?
According to the 2000 census, this particular area of Newark housed 235 households with median incomes of $25,880. Over 90 percent of the residents were under the age of 65. Seventy percent of the households lived in rented units while 29.6 percent were owner-occupied. Median monthly rents were $465. In 2001, a time of rising unemployment and increasing housing costs in the U.S., this area experienced an unemployment rate of over 20 percent and rent increases of over 150 percent.
On a frigid January afternoon, I encountered Betty Thompson, a home health aide, in the process of helping her client unload groceries from the trunk of his car on Hillside Ave. He rents an apartment in one of the block’s older buildings. Thompson said the apartment had antiquated fixtures in the kitchen and was roach infested. But Thompson was not happy to see the new houses going up; in her opinion, their high prices are forcing out people who lived there. (Thompson lives in Irvington, an older suburb bordering Newark grappling with its own problems of crime, neglect and unemployment.) She said the houses are being sold to “professionals,” pointing out one of the homes that had been purchased by a corrections officer. Most, if not all, of these new houses have at least one rental unit, and Thompson is dismayed that the new homeowners are charging rents almost three times as high as what people are used to paying. “People are having to move, but where are they supposed to go?” she asked.
To find out more about these homes and their rental units, I placed a call to the realtor. I was informed that the homes were market-rate, priced in the “high $200s to mid $300s.” The realtor’s Web site lists the lowest at $284,900. When I asked the mortgage representative about the affordability of the homes in this area and about income requirements, he responded, “Well, you have to be able to afford the monthly mortgage payments. If you can, then they’re affordable.” These homes, though not overtly marketed to professionals such as police officers, nurses and teachers, are obviously not intended for the current residents of Irvine Turner Blvd. and Hillside Ave. The average price of a two-family unit is $350,000 and a three-family unit, $450,000. The two- and three-family units have replaced the low-income units that once provided affordable housing options for the lowest-income families and individuals, poorly maintained though they were. On the advice of the realtor’s broker, the new owners are charging rents as high as $1,500 per month per unit – to help cover their mortgage payments – while long-time, working class tenants are being forced out because they cannot afford the higher rents.
I was no longer overjoyed with the new houses with their gated front yards. The collateral damage for such a change was too high. I was unnerved that these attractive homes aren’t made available to the poor and working class, that this formerly dilapidated area of town – with its access to transportation like the train station, airport and three major interstate systems – was suddenly a gem. The realtor’s Web site even acknowledges that “[t]he extraordinary location [of this development]…should lead to tremendous enjoyment for the owner and tenants, as well as a strong investment in the revitalization of our State’s largest city.” With affordable housing units, especially rental housing, dwindling in numbers, I find it difficult to accept this block’s facelift. The nice homes with green lawns and wrought iron fences have done more than change the feel of the neighborhood; they’ve changed the community, too. Now when I find myself driving along Irvine Turner and Hillside late at night, I do feel safer when I stop at the red light, but I think my sense of safety was obtained at too high a price.