Catchy, isn’t it. I’m offering it up as a slogan for the next Mayor of Trenton. In fact, I’m suggesting that it be the entire campaign platform.
Trenton currently has a per capita income of $17,066 per person according the US Census Bureau (2009 numbers). However, as we’re fond of saying in Trenton, “There’s always Camden”, which is $12,777. The average for all of New Jersey is $34,622 . Trenton’s per capita income is half that of the average for New Jersey. This is why we struggle as a city. There’s no money here.
To help clarify our revitalization mission here in Trenton I offer Clifton, NJ. Clifton is a “middle of the pack” city in New Jersey with a per capita income of $30,552. It also happens to be the same size as Trenton with a population of 85,000. Clifton is a great aspirational target in terms of economic activity.
Clifton is a quiet bedroom community for New York City with nice parks and good schools. It’s also quite diverse. Given Trenton’s history and location I’m sure that given the same income mix we’d be a much better place to live? “Go Trenton, Beat Clifton”.
Why focus on income as a measure anyway? Everything is tied to income: Housing values, student performance and even crime. There aren’t too many high income areas with run down houses, bad schools and rampant crime. Nobody hopes to revitalize their town by lowering the income.
Per capita income targets give us something at which to aim. How far should we go? Let’s be reasonable and assume that a city should be a diverse, after all we don’t want to be Princeton. Furthermore we’re starting from pretty far in the hole so let’s give ourselves a break and shoot for, say, $30,000. That’s a round number and about the same as Clifton, so when we make it, we’ll declare victory.
Furthermore, a city’s per capita income tells you whether the city is being subsidized by state, county and federal governments (i.e. is it a drain on society?). It tells you whether the tax rate is high and whether it can pay for the things that make a city nice: like parks, public art and libraries.
Make no mistake about it though, I don’t equate the $35,000,000 or so the state currently pays Trenton as “aid”. When you do the math on the State’s property in Trenton, they should be paying a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) of about that amount. However, when we include our schools, it’s clear that the State is massively subsidizing us as they pay roughly 80% of the budget.
If our next Mayor and city council really want to focus on revitalization, they will worry less about attracting affordable housing and halfway houses and more about moving up the ranks of per capita income.
Sounds great but here’s the catch. Given Trenton’s current population of 85,000 people at an income of $17,066, we’ll need to add 79,000 people with a per capita income of $45,000. We’ll be a vibrant city of 164,000 people living in beautifully converted lofts, gleaming high-rises and restored 19th century homes.
To put this into real terms, to reach our goal, we would have to absorb 20 times the population of affluent Lambertville to move our average up to Clifton’s. Imagine that: Trenton will have to convince 79,000 Lambertville-like folks to leave their restored historic houses, fine eateries and antique shops to move to Trenton. That’s a lot of convincing but it’s what has to be done.
This goal has other implications. Remember that per capita means “per person”. Children that don’t earn $45,000 / year will bring down the average. This is a serious realization. It means that we need to work especially hard to attract childless adults who make at least $90,000 per couple. This is especially important when we realize that Trenton’s largest cost is support of children. In order to fix our economy and our budget we need to become an especially attractive place for singles, retirees, gay couples and young marrieds. This formula is a familiar platform in revitalized cities across America.
Every good platform needs planks and for revitalization there are only three that matter:
• Bring back the middle and upper class. Whenever a new proposal comes into city hall, department directors would have to ask themselves, “Will this get us to $30,000 per capita income?”. Let’s face it, the only proposal that will pass muster are ones that attract middle class and upper income to town or that provide high paying new jobs.
• Institute a pro-growth tax system – Our property taxes are not only highest in NJ but they also discourage development. A land-value tax would tax land at a very high rate but improvements at a very low rate. This encourages developers to build very dense and very expensive buildings. We want that.
• Reject new affordable housing projects. Affordable Housing programs like Leewood Village, HOPE VI and Mt. Laurel RCA contributions will be banned from Trenton. As evidenced by the Lamberton Historic Districts stance against these projects, Mill Hill, Berkley Sq. Cadwalder Heights, Glen Afton and Hiltonia have worked hard to raise their standard of living; other neighborhoods want the same success but just don’t want the city working against them.
• Listen to what the people want. Take to heart what your current middle and upper class citizens are telling you. They want Arts, Crime Prevention, Preservation and Clean Streets. They can’t be any clearer.
I don’t mean to suggest that taking this radical approach to revitalization will be easy for a political candidate. For years Trentonians have been misled to believe that affordable housing IS revitalization. Also, there is a large part of Trenton’s population that makes their living catering to the poor, either through state government or the various non-profits with offices in town. We’re practically a company town for the underclass. However, to “Beat Clifton” and get to $30,000 we’ve got to move forward.
I challenge out next crop of mayoral candidate to seize the agenda of growing Trenton into a powerhouse city. You will have plenty of support from voters that are ready to welcome 79,000 affluent new neighbors.
Go Trenton! Beat Clifton!