Life in the Two Americas: The City of Camden and Its Region

Fair Share Housing Development, Inc. (FSHD), through the development and continuing operation of Northgate II (402 units) and Cooper Plaza Historic Homes (64 units), in the City of Camden, has experienced “life” in America’s fifth poorest city over the last 31 years (1980-2011).

Camden, which has long been one of the most dangerous places to live in the nation, is financially bankrupt. Every year, Camden ranks as one of the top five cities in the nation in the number of murders per capita. The city raises less than 20 percent of its annual operating budget through local taxes and depends on state aid for its existence. Camden’s schools are totally segregated and operate in unsafe outdated facilities in neighborhoods that are rife with drug traffic. Fewer than half of all students graduate from public high school. Almost the entire annual budget for the public school system, more than $300 million, comes from the state.

As the result of its “Camden Experience,” FSHD has concluded that for the City of Camden to be revitalized, the surrounding region (Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties) must open its doors and provide affordable housing opportunities and choice for the poor who reside in the City of Camden. This is the only way to reduce racial segregation and deconcentrate poverty which plague Camden and NJ’s other urban centers.

Camden’s current population, almost all poor minority group members, is approximately 79,000. The city’s development capacity is about 125,000. The region must create at least 40,000 affordable housing opportunities of choice for Camden residents in order to facilitate a voluntary out-migration which could then lead to an in-migration of the middle class and a more economically and racially balanced community. The regionalization of affordable housing opportunities for Camden’s poor, as required by the Mount Laurel doctrine, can reduce the financial and social stress on the City of Camden, which has increased over the last 40 years due to a mass exodus of the middle class, a loss of tax ratables and jobs as well as an influx of the poor. The sale of illegal drugs is the primary “industry” and primary “employer” in Camden’s neighborhoods. Such factors have made poverty and segregation permanent features of “life” in the City of Camden, and these negative elements cannot be reduced from within.

FSHD has expanded its mission from one which develops affordable housing in the City of Camden to one which focuses on the development and operation, with supportive services, of affordable housing in the tri-county region outside the City of Camden (Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties). FSHD’s goal is to demonstrate that the injustices and deprivations caused by the concentration of inner-city poverty and segregation can be overcome through the provision of affordable housing in high-opportunity communities outside the city when these opportunities are coupled with supplemental education and parenting programs aimed at the development of personal responsibility and independence.

—Peter J. O’Connor, Esquire