If a city has a thriving downtown, hip neighborhoods, and new skyscrapers, that city might get credit as an urban revival success, perhaps with a caveat about gentrification displacing low income residents. But what about the town’s less prosperous districts, where “progress” consists of bulldozing abandoned homes, where crime terrorizes residents, and where furniture on the sidewalks is a common sight, as renters scramble from eviction to eviction?
In his new book on urban planning, “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America,” former Trenton official Alan Mallach takes a hard look at the problems that dog every city in America, from the forgotten rust belt factory towns to the booming tech capitals, as everywhere, wealth fails to reach very far down the class ladder to the mostly nonwhite low-income population.
Mallach spent the 1990s working in Trenton as an urban planner and since then has consulted for other small to mid-sized cities. He’s also met and spoken with people in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities that have managed to partly recover from post-industrial slumps. Having been hired to study gentrification in Detroit as a consultant, Mallach became skeptical of the widespread narrative that low income residents were being displaced by the arrival of wealthy newcomers in hot neighborhoods. (It turned out that low income residents have little stability no matter what neighborhood they live in.) He also turned his attention to the rest of the city, and found even more of a crisis in the neighborhoods that were not gentrifying, but were in fact in sharp decline.
These experiences, along with a hefty amount of research, form the backbone of his thesis, and his recommendations for solutions.
“There seem to be two parallel narratives going on in the media about cities,” Mallach says. “One was kind of, ‘Hooray, hooray, the cities are back. Everything is wonderful, it’s good again, rah rah,’ or ‘It’s a disaster; there’s poverty, lack of affordability, etc.’ Another variation was that cities are being overrun by gentrification and everyone is being displaced and thrown out of their homes. And none of these narratives reflected the reality that I was seeing day after day in all of these places,” he says.
Mallach’s book attempts to capture what he sees as a very complicated “mixed reality” going on in urban America. Some authors have attempted to describe, with nuance, the urban crisis or articulate ideas of new localism, but Mallach says these are mostly “Written from 50,000 feet and designed to promote a thesis or argument that doesn’t represent the reality of what was going on on the ground.”
Mallach’s book includes plenty of theory and ideas, but also delves into the decisions faced by the individuals caught up in the turmoil. In the chapter on jobs and education, Mallach describes how low-wage work has become a trap rather than a way out of poverty. Drawing on his experience in Cleveland, Mallach notes that for a resident of the city’s Central neighborhood to get to Ahuja Medical Center, a major employer, the worker would have to make a 25-minute car trip or to go by public transit, a 15 to 20-minute walk to the nearest bus stop, two different bus rides, and a 10-minute walk to the hospital — 90 minutes each way under ideal circumstances.
For readers in Mercer County, the book has obvious relevance to Trenton, which Mallach mentions several times in the book. “The Divided City” gives a historical overview of the rise and fall of America’s industrial cities, with Trenton being a prime example. From the end of the Civil War through the 1920s, Trenton’s steel and ceramics-based businesses grew, employing armies of workers. The owners of these factories lived locally and invested some of their wealth back into the community, funding amenities such as libraries, parks, orchestras, and so on. But as companies were bought by large national corporations, this “civic capitalism” came to an end. Eventually, Trenton’s big business owners abandoned the city entirely. As with so many other cities throughout the country, Trenton’s residents were left to deal with fewer employment prospects, crumbling infrastructure, and declining services.
When Mallach was a planner in 1990s, the last of the big industrial employers were leaving. “In 1996, when I was director of housing and economic development in Trenton, our last large-scale manufacturer from our industrial heyday, Hill Refrigeration, announced that it would close its plant and move to Virginia, laying off over 800 workers. It was a big blow to a small, struggling city.
“Realizing that their Trenton plant, a congeries of pieces built between the 1880s and 1960s, was woefully inefficient, the city, county, and state all approached Hill hoping to keep them, if not in the city of Trenton — where finding a suitable site for a new plant that size would be all but impossible — then at least in the area, so the workers could keep their jobs. The firm’s response implied some amusement at our naivete. ‘You don’t understand’ I remember hearing more or less in these words. ‘The building isn’t the big issue. The big issue is how much we’re paying our workforce. None of our competitors are union, and to be competitive we need to start over with a non-union workforce.’ Tellingly, Hill did not offer any of its Trenton workers jobs at its new plant.”
Mallach, now a Roosevelt resident, is returning to Trenton as a member of Reed Gusciora’s transition team, on the housing committee. In an August interview, Mallach said he hadn’t delved deeply into the issue yet, but sees there are a lot of different issues the city needs to be tackling at the same time.
“One of the things that’s really important is doing something about housing and rebuilding neighborhoods. It isn’t something you can do through a set of one-shot initiatives.” He believes Trenton has very limited in-house capacity in city hall, and a very limited pool of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping neighborhoods. “Trenton could really benefit if it had some strong, big-capacity organization working on neighborhood revitalization,” he said.
On the redevelopment front, Mallach says getting rid of Route 29, which cuts through the heart of the city, and opening up the downtown to the river would give the business district a real boost.
Mallach sees a few reasons to be hopeful about Trenton’s future. He cites groups such as the East Trenton Collaborative and Isles, which are doing good work in neighborhoods. He says the government should find ways to help homeowners in neighborhoods like Chambersburg, which has seen an influx of Hispanic immigrants.
“When it comes to building Trenton’s economy, and this seems kind of counterintuitive, but I think the single most important thing the government can do to strengthen the economy and strengthen the fiscal picture is to focus on housing,” Mallach says. New housing in downtown Trenton could help turn the city into the major regional center that it ought to be.
Outside of downtown, houses are “outrageously undervaluded,” going for $25 to $40,000. Ironically, the low price drives away homeowners and attracts irresponsible absentee investors. At such low prices, it becomes attractive for landlords to buy a property on the cheap, rent it out, and spend nothing on repairs or property taxes. After a few years, the government seizes the now-derelict property to pay for the tax arrears, but the landlord has come out ahead by collecting rent. Schemes like this bring down neighborhoods.
Mallach says the only way to reverse this pattern is to focus on improving properties. “Housing prices start going up, you start to see more tax compliance, more tax ratables, and more value in the community. This will change the economic picture. Housing done right could have a far more significant economic impact on the city than nearly any other strategy, and represents a realistic option for the city. Amazon’s HQ2 is not coming to Trenton. Large factories employing thousands of people aren’t gonna happen, and corporate headquarters aren’t gonna happen. Housing is the big point of the city.”
Mallach is not the first to notice that many low income earners have trouble affording places to live. Several political movements offer solutions.
On the libertarian end of the political spectrum, the YIMBY, or “Yes in My Back Yard” movement boosts development of all kinds, counteracting their NIMBY counterparts who oppose the construction of any housing, sometimes killing off affordable housing projects in the name of “neighborhood character.” In particular, the YIMBYs advocate for removing restrictions on the construction high-density housing.
Mallach says that this question is largely irrelevant in Trenton, where there is little need for new housing outside of downtown. “The main thing Trenton needs outside of downtown is to get the housing it already has fully utilized, maintained, and upgraded,” he says.
In general, he says, building new housing is so expensive that new construction on its own rarely results in an increase in affordable housing. “The cost of building is mind boggling,” he says. “In places like San Francisco, it is $500,000 a unit.” Even if the entire cost of these new buildings were to be financed by public money, each unit would cost $500 or $600 a month in maintenance.
Furthermore, many American cities were built with single-family homes in mind from their very beginnings, and so the infrastructure might not support high-density housing.
The leftist/progressive movement also proposes various forms of social welfare to remedy the housing problem, including the construction of public housing.
Mallach is skeptical of federal intervention in cities, pointing that the federally-funded attempts at urban renewal in the 1970s are now viewed as disastrous. Often under these programs, minority neighborhoods were deemed “slums” and bulldozed to make way for highways, housing projects, and corporate development.
At the end of his book, Mallach lays out a series of recommendations for urban revival. Perhaps the most radical is to replace the federal “Section 8” housing voucher program, which the government estimates helps about a fourth of the people who should benefit from it, with an expanded housing voucher program that would reach more people while fixing some of the problems that have become apparent with Section 8.
“For a wealthy society like the United States to knowingly allow millions of its citizens to live in desperate hardship, when an adequate remedy is known and within our grasp, strikes me as an equity issue,” Mallach writes.