Will our actions match our revitalization words?

Hopefully our city council will quickly move away from the issue of the council president’s “race”. It is unseemly to think that race divides our city council.

On to more important things.

A few weeks ago, Trenton made two uneconomic decisions right in the thick of the election.

  1. It approved the receipt of HOPE VI funding to replace Miller Homes, and
  2. It approved a tax abatement for Escher Street SRO, a halfway house

Both decisions are emblematic of the path Trenton has been following for the past 20 years and both run counter to the focus on economic recovery most of our candidates espoused.

In 2004, the South Trenton neighborhood comprising the Lamberton Historic District fought against HOPE VI funding which would have replaced one housing project, Kearney Homes, with another. They hoped for better and they’ve gotten it with a 100% market rate development from Ryan Homes.

In the course of that battle two astonishing observations were made concerning the agenda of the Trenton Housing Authority and the City administrations.

  1. When asked whether an economic impact analysis of the project had been done, neither the City nor the THA had done one. They had no idea whether the project would be economically good or bad. At one point in the meetings between the neighborhood and THA, I asked about this and a THA official suggested that I prepare the analysis for them. It was a flippant comment, but I went ahead and did it. Sure enough, that project would have been a drain on the city.
  2. THA set up meetings with citizens to get input on the project. About ¾ of the way through one of these sessions, several of us realized that no one from THA was actually capturing notes from the input they were supposedly getting from the 100 or so neighbors in the room. It was a rude awakening to the callousness of bureaucrats towards the communities they serve.

I don’t imagine the neighborhood around Miller Homes was nearly as organized as the Lamberton group (I certainly haven’t heard about them). So I doubt there was anybody to raise issues about HOPE VI this time around. And I am sure that no one in the current administration or city council asked for an economic impact analysis. Going forward, let’s please do better.

The abatement on Escher Street SRO was even more ironic. All through the campaign, candidates including the three on the current city council have bemoaned Trenton’s structural deficit and the high number of non-tax-paying non-profit owned buildings in Trenton. They were talking about buildings exactly like the halfway house which had had a previous abatement but had ran out. When it came time to do something about it, city council folded. They passed the abatement measure in the same session where they were forced by the state to actually pass a budget which represented the failed policies of the past. Their actions didn’t measure up to their words when they granted an extension on Escher Street thereby extending Trenton’s structural deficit.

The problem with both of these decisions is that they ignore the basic economics of our city. Trenton is awash in costs for the poor and has no tax base to support those costs. We all know that our per capita income and therefore our ratables are very low, dangerously low.  And yet these two projects add to overall structural deficit.

A HOPE VI project will generate far more costs in the form of school, police, inspections, recreation and social services costs than it will ever generate in the form of property taxes.  As politically difficult as it sounds, the project will be an additional drain on the city.  This is the challenge that a politician faces in Trenton. We can no longer afford to do the cuddly, feel good thing.  We have to make hard choices, and our current council and administration failed to do it with Miller Homes.

The halfway house is even worse. I’m sure the home would have had to close. But presumably it would relocate to a community better able to subsidize its existence. We need halfway houses in this world, unfortunately Trenton can’t afford them at this time. Perhaps, when we’re healthier.

I point all this out to illustrate the kind of difficult decisions our next government faces.  We, as citizens, need to understand that we can’t afford to do everything we might want and that economic analysis can help us separate the good from the bad.  We’re like airline passengers that have lost pressurization in the cabin.  We need to put our oxygen mask on first before we worry about saving everybody else.   

Most importantly, we need to focus ourselves, as well as Council, on economic recovery and away from racial politics.

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