How did Trenton get to this point?

As Trenton’s low point approaches, let’s not forget that it was 20 years of previous administration that led us here. The current group has just put the final nails in the coffin.

We’re laying off 105 police officers because our municipal budget is over $200M and Trentonians already pay the highest tax rate in NJ just to contribute $70M of that amount. Contrary to popular belief, the State of NJ would pay almost that same total, plus almost ALL of our $300M school budget.

Trenton’s taxpayers are nowhere close to being able to pay for their own government. The state currently owns roughly 25% of property value in Trenton and pays over 40% of the cost of municipal and school budgets.

We could keep the police officers but our property taxes would have to go up an additional 12% or so, thereby bankrupting many of us.

How did we get here?

  • For 20 years we’ve added more affordable housing than any other city in NJ *. This kept our average income and housing price low relative to the rest of the state and continued to push up our police and school costs. We are overindexed on families with low disposable income. This makes Trenton unattractive for retailers.
  • Through inattention we’ve driven away almost every large private employer. We’ve agressively, beat down developers with arrogant demands. We’ve failed to reinvent our tax code so that it now punishes new development.
  • We’ve elected officials who failed to understand the linkage between budget, policy and our city’s health. Voters had only to spend 60 secconds during the election and they could have discovered that most of our current leadership was not up to the task of saving the city from its current plight.
  • Its been ignorance and pride that have brought us to this point. At some point Trentonians will have to do the hard work of taking responsibility for their city. The State can be a partner but Trentonians must cooperate in good faith. We must show a plan for recovery. We need to lead.

    * BTW – According to COAH’s Guide to Affordable Housing Trenton has 7799 affordable housing units (even before including Trenton Housing Authority or section 8). Readers should be aware that there are only 22,000 or so households in Trenton. This means that over 1 out of every 3 homes in Trenton is affordable housing.

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    18 Responses to “How did Trenton get to this point?”

    • Marc Leckington:

      Your first “how did we get here” is incorrect. MANY towns have more affordable housing than Trenton. Heck, in our own County, Lawrence has more than us.

    • Marc,

      A few things,
      According to COAH Trenton has more affordable units than the rest of Mercer put toghether.
      Second, Trenton has taken more RCA money than any other NJ city.

      I know you’re an affordable housing fan, and if you feel the need to go toe to toe on this I will. My point is that our focus on adding projects like the Miller Homes HOPE VI has driven Trenton to ruin. All one has to do is look at the tax records for Trenton Housing Authority to see that it pays almost nothing in taxes and yet adds mightily to our population. The very fact that Trentonians continue to support affordable housing is testemant to how deluded they are. One has to simply do the math to see that we can’t achieve an income level that’s average for NJ if we don’t aggressively STOP new low income housing and aggressively BEGIN attracting higher income housing.

      The current administration and council steadfastly refused to consider the economic impact of continued public investment in low income housing. They actually refused. It’s this kind of “head in the sand” approach that has kept Trenton in NJ’s economic basement.

      Affordable Housing apologists will get no quarter from me.

    • Marc Leckington:

      Please, source your report on the affordable housing numbers in Trenton. Here’s mine:

      Most housing in Trenton is “affordable” already. In other words, folks making under 80% of the median income can afford the purchase price of a market rate home in Trenton. There’s no denying that those people exist and that their incomes are well below “average.” Many COAH-sanctioned affordable units in Trenton actually cost more than MARKET RATE HOMES (which also means that they tend to pay more in taxes too)! I’d love to show you the math, Dan.

    • patricia stewart:

      I agree, Dan, with your current posting. For years, we spent money we did not have. For years, I have been saying Trenton needs more residents with higher incomes. The median income in Trenton is about $36,000. Rough math – 80% of $36,000 is about $29,000. Anyone with that income cannot, in my opinion, afford to buy a market rate house. And the higher the income, the fewer public services are needed. Patricia Stewart

    • Thanks Pat. To keep things straight though. I believe per capita income is closer to $17K. Median Household income is the higher (probably $36K) number.

      Also, I did a check of Low Income housing project PILOTs. Turns out they pay 1.8% of assessed value on average. That’s a pretty steep discount and doesn’t even take into consideration the value per unit.

      The notion that “if only Trenton had more low income housing our problems would be solved” is simply bankrupt of all credibility.

      People that continue to bang that drum are confusing the public and perpetuating the false notion that we get something for nothing.

    • BTW – According to COAH’s Guide to Affordable Housing Trenton has 7799 affordable housing units (even before including Trenton Housing Authority or section 8). Readers should be aware that there are only 22,000 or so households in Trenton. This means that over 1 out of every 3 homes in Trenton is affordable housing.

      The rest of Mercer County has only 4924 affordable housing units according to the same COAH report.

      Camden, by comparison has 6155 units. Newark has 22452.

      Trenton has .09 affordable units per person while Newark has .08.

      These figures do not include the use of RCA funds where Trenton has lapped the field.

    • Marc Leckington:

      Median income for a family of two in Mercer County is $73,113. Love to see a link of that 7799 number, Dan.

    • Marc Leckington:

      Ooops, that median income is not just for Mercer. COAH uses REGIONAL income limits for the purchase and rental of affordable housing. Mercer’s region also includes Monmouth and Ocean.

    • John:

      There is also a puzzling use of language here: the city can’t afford its present situation. How then are housing units affordable? Am I missing something? Isn’t this an example of “1984″ speak? Secondly, I don’t understand why the city should seek more “affordable housing” rather than just plain housing, if there is a market for the housing. If there is no market for the housing, isn’t that an indication that there is no need, in which case: why build? Might there not be more reward in other activity that might lead to either less cost or more attractiveness for market rate influx of population? I guess I really need help in understanding the “new paradigm”.

    • Marc, its on the COAH web site. These are Sept. 11 numbers.

      John, the City of Trenton and its taxpayers are the ones who can’t afford the affordable housing.

      Problem is that it costs more to serve low income residents than we take in in revenue.

      It’s a matter of degree though. A family of four in wealthy Robbinsville also costs more to serve than they pay due to school costs.

      For Trenton, we need to understand this equation better. However, there is nothing we can or should do to block private development of any type. The main problem is when we spend tax dollars to stimulate low income housing that we KNOW costs us more to support than we get in tax revenue. That’s just stupid.

    • Doodson, you right on the money with this one. So now we must decide how to get the Goodtime Charlie’s out of the city politics and the appeasers that have been put in place in Trenton leadership for the next 20 years.

    • Marc Leckington:

      That’s not COAH’s website. That Codes and Standards. I’d still love to see you source this claim that 30% of our units are affordable. The actual number is closer to 5%.

      There’s no need to bring Robbinsville into the discussion. The market-rate neighbors of a COAH unit in Trenton are also a net negative.

      Oh, and you’re information on affordable housing PILOTS needs correction. COAH-compliant ownership units always pay taxes at the same rate of their non-subsidized neighbors. If a town elects to give a housing development (affordable or not) a PILOT, that’s a local decision and has nothing to do with COAH.

    • OK. It’s the DCA web site that lists all the affordable housing in every town in NJ.

      Here’s the link.

      I used the “SUM” function in Excel to add up the units in Trenton. There’s not a lot of mystery here.

      And really, I don’t give a rats ass about COAH compliancy. Whether a low income housing falls under one bureaucratic mess of government funding or another, it has the same effect on a city like Trenton. All you have to do is watch the spectacle of government involvement in action to see how badly it works.

      The Miller Homes HOPE VI project is a case in point. 15 people in suits came to Trenton’s city council last January to curry favor with politicians to make sure they could feed at the trough of government money to the tune of $110M. All so they could build “affordable” housing that cost $325K per unit. It was a horrid spectacle full of corruption and poor economics.

      I can count and I’ve seen DCA’s data and our own tax roll data. There is no other conclusion to reach that we have far too much government controlled low income housing that is paying far too little in taxes.

      This isn’t about COAH compliancy. It’s about years of using Trenton as a dumping ground for low income housing projects and thereby concentrating poverty and crime.

      Just yesterday one of our lovely neighbors from the Kingsbury housing project shot and killed a young man in broad daylight on the streets of my neighborhood while at the same time my wife was walking home a block away. Kingsbury has produced this kind of danger for years.

      So if you want to argue that we need more of that, please do, but I wouldn’t do it in front of people like me who are pissed off and fed up with the policies that have led Trenton into the abyss.

      Take your affordable housing elsewhere.

    • Marc:

      PILOTS are local decisions and have little to do with affordable housing. You’ll probably find more tax revenue lost with PILOTS on commercial and market rate housing development than you will on affordable housing in Trenton. Your assumption that every owner and occupant of an affordable unit is getting some sort of tax ride is plain wrong.

      Dan, are you paying full taxes on the post-rennovation value of your building?

    • John McManimon:

      Couldn’t agree with you more,Dan. Like Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm Trenton has sucked up every RCA dollar that came it’s way for the past twenty years. But do we blame the addict or the pusher?Spreading low income households out over many municipalities would be better than allowing the concentrations of poverty that our cities have become. The decay will eventually effect not only the host municipalities but also the over-protective and short sighted suburbs bordering them. And is it fair to build housing for the most vulnerable and job-needy populations in our society in a place where there are no jobs? Seems kind of cruel. The Miller Homes project should have been used to build a light industry park not unlike the one around the corner that houses ANA Candles, P&G Trading and others. I know the property is a little small for that and that demand in the current economy is weak but if the land even sat vacant for a few years it wouldn’t incur the costs that more housing will. It’s time Trenton went to RCA rehab. It was time ten years ago.

    • PILOTs in Trenton are negotiated deals between developers and the administration. The rates are reflective of how badly the administration wants a particular development.

      They are also reflective of wheeling and dealing.

      Its instructive to see that such a large proportion of affordable housing in Trenton have PILOTs attached to them.

      That implies that either we mistakenly thought the projects were a good idea or that the connected developpers that made them happen were able get a good deal from the city probably with the aid of campaign contributions.

      Given that the PILOT levels are so much lower than market rate taxation, I have to assume a little of both.

      This goes under the heading of Trenton’s foolish tax system. Rather than negotiate PILOTs,one at a time, thereby leaving rather large and permanent decisions in the hands of sometimes foolish politicians, we should set up a standard PILOT.

      Developers will argue that all large projects need PILOTs, whether they are government subsidized or not. Given our current tax structure that is undoubtedly true. However it is also true that it leads to a situation where tenants in Kingsbury pay less than their share of taxes. This will also be true of HHGs new project in the Roebling complex and of tenants in the Broad Street Bank.

      We should ask (and some thoughtful citizens do) why are the rest of us subsidizing these projects?

      The answer is because our leadership is either unable to act on the alternatives that have been presented to them, or they like it the way it is. The way it is, they get to blackmail developers with a vote to give them a low PILOT rate.

      There are many reasons government regulated low income housing is bad for Trenton. The fact that they dominate the list of PILOTs in Trenton is just one of them.

    • [...] terms. And now, when the shit is really hitting the fan, he runs away to Yardley. The Re-Invent Trenton blog addresses Palmer and how Trenton got to where it is [...]

    • patricia stewart:

      Good morning, Dan. Boy, you opened a can of worms, but you’re right. Too bad if the truth hurts. A few years back, Jackie Blakey and I were at council when the owners of The Broad Bank Building appeared to beg for a forty year pilot; Jackie and I spoke agianst it because the PILOT was to be based on the income of the building. We both pointed it was so easy to cook the books; Jackie snapped, “Remember ENRON?” I’m not completely sure what the term, “affordable,” means or to whom it applies. I can’t afford to live in the Cadwalader Heights neighborhood; is that my problem or Trenton’s? I believe it’s my problem. And the same for others. Why can’t someone affford a certain house? Because they have no income? Probably. Why don’t they have an income? Because they have no basic education and/or skills? Why not? because they dropped out at the first opportunity. If someone wants to be a bum, this is America and one is entitled to be a bum. I just don’t care to underwrite the lifestyle. Council passed the forty year PILOT; while I haven’t been inside The Broad Street Bank Building in about three years, I am told the maintenance sucks. So the building income will fall and so will the PILOT.

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