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Part 1: BlightFebruary 2019
Blight in Atlantic City: Will it ever end?
coming in March
coming later this year
W hen the TV news show 60 Minutes came to town on the 20th anniversary of legalized gambling here, Atlantic City was booming — beating out Las Vegas for gaming revenue.
But the show focused on neighborhood blight.
“The casinos are surely happy. But the business district has gone belly-up,” said Morley Safer in the episode called “Raking It In.” “No streets of gold, just seedy pawn shops catering to tapped-out gamblers,” Safer said. “Atlantic City is a mecca for gamblers, but a disaster area if you live there.”
More than 20 years after that 1996 show, which asked why the city remained plagued by poverty and urban decay in spite of casinos raking in $3.7 billion a year, the issue of blight is still dogging the city.
A supermarket had just been built in 1996, and city officials pointed to it as a big accomplishment for improving life for residents.
In a moment of deja-vu, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority recently said it is researching bringing another one to town in the next two years.
The 1996 store had closed in 2004, with owners saying theft and vandalism made it impossible to operate there, and the city has remained without one ever since.
Atlantic City first became nationally known for blight rather than beaches after the 1964 Democratic National Convention at Boardwalk Hall. Reporters from all over the nation and world told their readers the resort’s hotels were old, dirty and hot; the Boardwalk full of shoddy merchandise and businesses; and the city a dingy mess.
Today, much of the city has been remade with new housing stock in almost every neighborhood. The shopping center The Walk greets visitors as they enter from the Atlantic City Expressway, rather than the public housing complex called Jonathan Pitney Village that stood there until it was demolished in 1998. Some groups are even looking at turning blight into canvases for art.
But a new type of blight now also welcomes them – the shuttered former Trump Plaza casino hotel, which sits awaiting demolition.
And pockets of decrepit buildings, rooming houses, and vacant lots still dot all areas.
Vacant homes remain in all of the city’s neighborhoods, complicated by the effects of a national recession, Hurricane Sandy, the casino implosion of 2014, the city’s continuing financial problems and deepening poverty.
“There needs to be more home ownership,” said Joseph Greenidge, 55, vice president of Greenidge Funeral Home in the Bungalow Park section. That’s the only way people have an investment in a city, he said, and the motivation to keep it clean and updated.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2013 to 2017 only 26 percent of homes in Atlantic City were owner occupied, compared to 67 percent countywide and 64 percent both statewide and nationwide.
Twenty-three percent of the resort’s housing is vacant, according to the Census Bureau.
Poverty has also increased dramatically in the city in the last 50 years, according to Jim Johnson’s report, “Atlantic City: Building a Foundation for a Shared Prosperity.” Poverty jumped from 22.5 percent in 1969 to 37.6 percent in 2016; while the state poverty rate has remained relatively stable, moving from 8.1 percent to 10.4 percent.
The funeral home was started by Greenidge’s parents in 1971 at the intersection of Absecon Boulevard, Drexel and N. Delaware avenues on the edge of Bungalow Park. About a year ago he expanded its footprint with a new administration building behind it on Delaware and Drexel avenues.
Here's how Atlantic City identifies abandoned homes, step-by-step
- An initial abandoned property list is published in the newspaper, and it is continually updated.
- The city sends a notice to the homeowner and any mortgagee, servicing group or property tax processing organization with 10 days of the list being issued. If the owner is unknown, a sign is posted on the building.
- Copies of the notices are filed with the county clerk and sent to utility companies servicing Atlantic City.
- An owner or lienholder can appeal their inclusion on the list within 30 days of receiving the certified notice or 40 days from when it was sent. A hearing is then scheduled.
He wishes more people would invest, instead of leaving for other towns.
“People have moved out of the city,” he said. “Since (Hurricane) Sandy, when you walk down most blocks of Atlantic City, a home or two has been left empty.”
When his family moved into the neighborhood in 1971, the 700 block of Drexel Avenue was “a pretty block, where trees overlapped and people kept the sidewalks clean,” Greenidge said. Homeowners picked up trash and swept the sidewalks.
Now the block, made up mostly of row homes, is stark and in need of repair, and Greenidge doesn’t even know who is renting most of the homes, he said.
Greenidge sees a lot of people trying to make a positive difference, including civic associations, he said. “But it’s a high hill to climb, at this point.”
The Venice Park Civic Association is one group trying to address blight in their neighborhood, to the south of the White Horse Pike entrance to the city on the bay.
It has waterfront properties on canals and the bay. About nine of its homes were lost to the Atlantic City- Brigantine Connector tunnel, finished in 2001, that links the Expressway to the marina district. Homeowners fought to keep their properties in the 1990s, pointing out the tunnel was disrupting one of the city’s most stable neighborhoods.
“We had five feet of water during Hurricane Sandy,” said Fred Granese, a retired Atlantic City fireman who lives in Venice Park and is vice president of the Venice Park Homeowners Association. “Charlatans rolled the older folks — took their money and ran — didn’t do the work.”
So a lot of people just walked away from their houses, he said.
Now the association has mapped out those vacant properties, trying to determine which ones are salvageable and which need demolition, said Michael F. Johnson, the Housing Redevelopment Committee coordinator for the association.
Is a house in your neighborhood abandoned?
A house is considered abandoned if it has not been occupied for at least six month and:
- Has been deemed unfit for human habitation
- No rehabilitation work has taken place in the last six months
- At least one installment of property tax is unpaid
- The condition of the property increases fire risks to the property and surrounding homes
Trespassing occurs, leading to “health and safety hazards.” The owner has not taken measures to secure the house.
- Vermin, debris, uncut vegetation or physical deterioration are present
- It has a “dilapidated appearance” that “affects the welfare” of those living in the area
“It has to be done by the city and state in partnership,” said Johnson, who retired from Atlantic Electric and has lived in Venice Park since 1973, of the actual demolition and rehabilitation and its financing. It is outside the reach of a homeowners’ association, he said, but the group is more than willing to help gather information.
The group has met several times with the city’s Director of the Department of Licensing and Inspections Dale Finch, and with city council members and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
The homeowners want the city and state to develop a plan to deal with vacant property citywide, not just in their neighborhood, and to finance needed demolition.
They also say they need regulations on short-term housing rentals, like AirBnB; the development of bike paths and other ways of connecting their neighborhood to the Boardwalk and other parts of the city; and relief from high property taxes that discourage people from moving to the city.
Greenidge also wants to see more business development in the city, so residents will get the advantages of an urban area. Right now, he doesn’t even consider the city a real urban area, he said, since it lacks basic services and businesses like supermarkets.
Before moving to Drexel Avenue, the family lived on Arctic Avenue, in a block that included about 10 businesses, he said.
“Now you’d be hard pressed to find 10 businesses in 10 blocks,” Greenidge said of his old neighborhood.
Timeline: History of Casinos in Atlantic City
Based on reporting by: David Danzis, Michelle Brunetti-Post, Avalon Zoppo, Colt Shaw, Claire Lowe, Molly Bilinski, Vincent Jackson, Amanda Auble
Visuals: Gail Wilson, Krishna Mathias, Lauren Carroll, Edward Lea, Craig Matthews
Editing: Nicholas Huba, Emily Lingo, Dan Grote, Gail Wilson, Mark Melhorn
Supervising Editors: Kris Worrell, W.F. Keough
Design & Development: Mike DellaVecchia
Sources: Atlantic City Department of Licensing and Inspection, Atlantic City Police Department, New Jersey Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards, Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.