By Olga Pomar
Ambitious redevelopment plans are being pushed forward for neighborhoods throughout Camden. Several of these plans propose acquisition and demolition of thousands of occupied homes through the use of eminent domain, the power of the government to purchase property for a "public use" without the owner's consent. The plans then call for construction of thousands of new housing units, mostly upscale homes.
Frantic residents have called South Jersey Legal Services asking what it means to be in a redevelopment area or to have their house on the acquisition list.
It was painful to explain the redevelopment laws to an 82-year-old woman who insists the city can't take her home because she has owned it for more than 50 years, has kept it in decent shape and has paid her taxes.
Nor was it easy to inform a young father who just moved into a house he inherited from his grandfather that the city plans to knock it down.
SJLS has brought lawsuits challenging some of these redevelopment plans on behalf of community organizations and more than 300 residents. We seek to protect the rights of the most vulnerable of these residents the low-income, senior citizens and the disabled.
Given skyrocketing housing prices and the shortage of subsidized units, these people are at great risk of becoming homeless or living in overcrowded, unsafe and unaffordable housing.
Many would welcome a program of neighborhood improvement that involves them in the planning process, builds on existing assets and ensures they will be able to remain and enjoy the improved community. They fear these ambitious redevelopment plans, however, were designed with someone else's interests in mind.
Residents of a redevelopment area have legitimate cause for concern because municipalities enjoy expansive powers under current redevelopment laws, while residents are afforded few rights and guaranteed only meager compensation. Once a redevelopment plan is properly adopted, a municipality can enter into agreements to turn land over to private developers without public bidding and with minimal public oversight. And it can acquire properties within the redevelopment area through eminent domain to effectuate these agreements.
The municipality can take title to a property by eminent domain and evict the resident in less than two months. The municipality must pay an owner only the fair-market value of the property in its current condition. Relocation laws provide that an owner also receive moving costs and an amount up to $15,000 for the purchase of a replacement home, which is usually not enough to purchase another property in the region. Renters who are displaced receive moving costs and up to $4,000 to cover a security deposit and a rent increase for a period up to four years, which covers an increase of about $100 per month.
Relocation laws do not require a municipality to create replacement units or guarantee housing will be available to the displaced household within the municipality.
Local governments often give assurances they will do more than what is legally required, making promises to build adequate affordable replacement housing to ensure residents can remain in their community. The problem is that if these promises fail to materialize, residents have little recourse.
Given these seemingly unchecked powers, it is not surprising that local governments used eminent domain in a destructive manner, destroying viable communities and wreaking havoc.
We should learn from the experience of urban renewal projects of past decades, when some 400,000 homes, primarily in African-American and low-income neighborhoods, were destroyed, while less than 11,000 public housing units were built as replacement units.
Yet new redevelopment initiatives in Camden, designed to eventually designate the entire city as a redevelopment zone, and calling for acquisition and demolition of at least 2,000 occupied homes, bear eerie similarities to the redevelopment proposals of the 1950s and '60s.
The discussion about what should be done is just heating up in New Jersey, and what happens in Camden should be a central issue in that debate.
Olga Pomar is an attorney at South Jersey Legal Services and is representing low-income Camden residents in several lawsuits challenging certain redevelopment plans recently adopted by Camden City.