The success in turning around Chelsea, Mass., can be attributed in part to consistent support from mayors around the region, according to Jim Carlin, the first Chelsea overseer.
Such support did not exist in Camden.
The takeover law in New Jersey mandated the creation of a Regional Impact Council that would have a vote on the Economic Recovery Board, which distributed recovery dollars.
But the council folded after one meeting; its representative on the board, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, resigned; and suddenly, the region forfeited its participatory role in Camden’s recovery.
Instead, it just subsidizes the city with its state tax dollars.
“It just wasn’t clear what the purpose was, and it was supposed to get set up with some staff, and then” the state budget crisis hit, Maley said. “It just really never get off the ground.”
Peter O’Connor, the father of affordable-housing laws in New Jersey, said the council met only once because there is no appetite for regional solutions.
“What it would take is strong political leadership, and that leadership, although present, is not present on those issues,” he said.
O’Connor said Camden can be saved only with an “out-migration” of up to half of its poor people to the suburbs, which must build more affordable housing, and an “in-migration” of the middle class to the city, which has bled population and has plenty of space.
Such a plan, though, is politically impossible.
“When you have the political leadership of the region opposing it, namely the suburban interests, that’s the problem with Camden,” he said.
Camden increased its number of affordable housing units only during the recovery, in direct contradiction to the law, which stipulated market-rate housing.
But the first chief operating officer of Camden, Melvin R. “Randy” Primas Jr., said he was in a Catch-22: Without existing middle-class housing, middle-class people won’t move in. But without the middle class, there is no market.
He tried to redevelop a section of Camden, Cramer Hill, into waterfront market-rate homes, but the community objected to the planned use of eminent domain and the displacement of families. The plan ended up getting thrown out of court.
“When [Gov. Corzine] took the position that he didn’t want to support the use of eminent domain, then lights out for Camden as far as I’m concerned,” Primas said.
A handful of market-rate homes will never save the city, he said.
“It’s going to continue to be inhabited by those folks at the end of the economic ladder,” he said. “And you can’t have thriving cities with folks who aren’t working.” – Matt Katz