In the wake of the housing collapse, countless foreclosures still dot the country. While the banks continue to pay taxes and maintenance fees on these properties, they have blighted neighborhoods and affected the viability of communities.
In Camden County, many such properties may soon be back on the market, thanks in part to the expertise and insight of three Rutgers University–Camden graduate students.
Prentiss Dantzler and Zach Wood, Ph.D. candidates in public affairs, and Jeanette Holdbrook, a graduate student in the master of public administration (MPA) program, are assisting an innovative partnership of seven Camden County towns focused on addressing vacant properties.
Led by Collingswood Mayor James Maley, the pilot program – partnering Collingswood, Audubon, Pennsauken, Oaklyn, Haddon Township, Haddonfield, and the Fairview section of Camden – aims to pool smaller, foreclosed residential properties into a larger portfolio in order to make them a priority for mortgage companies.
According to Maley, bringing in students from the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers–Camden really helps the partnering towns bring the project to the next level.
“This is a multi-faceted, many-layered program,” explains Maley, a 1982 graduate of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden. “Municipalities lack the staff to tackle something like this completely, but more importantly, the students are bringing current research and an academic eye to the project. If it all works out the way that we hope it will, we’ll have a successful pilot program and the students will have benefited from a really hands-on effort that encompasses a lot of moving parts, including banks, partner towns, and legislation.”
As the students explain, the towns collectively have more than 600 bank-owned properties among them. Lacking sufficient time and resources, mortgage lenders are sitting on small, residential homes and taking a substantial tax hit, while tending to larger properties. By aggregating these smaller properties together, they can work with lenders, providing resources and logistical support, to bring these homes back on the market.
“The banks need to have the incentive to address these properties,” says Wood, a resident of North Philadelphia. “They need to know that we are doing a lot of the legwork and creating a situation where it’s as painless as possible for them.”
Holdbrook has begun the process of gathering and analyzing data, such as mortgage lenders, total values, and locations, of bank-owned properties. The next phase will be to determine the major lenders and establish their respective portfolios, says the Deptford resident. Meanwhile, Wood and Dantzler have begun to map out the logistics, which they emphasize will be based in part on determining the available resources.
According to Wood, they have already received considerable interest from various nonprofit community development organizations. “Most organizations have never seen this type of regional partnership, especially one that encompasses areas with disparate socioeconomic conditions and issues,” says Wood, who credits the coalition to Maley’s relationship with his counterparts in the region.
Dantzler echoed the sentiment, adding that the program’s innovative, regional approach runs counter to the tendency of local governments to tackle problems on their own. “Usually, townships work in silos; they aren’t trying to work together,” says Dantzler, a native of West Philadelphia who currently lives in Camden. “I was intrigued to see what Collingswood was going to do differently – what tools they would use – in order to coordinate a regional effort.”
South Jersey communities such as Camden and Collingswood provide Rutgers–Camden’s Ph.D. students in public affairs with “rich workshops” to connect the theories of community development with local, on-the-ground issues, explains Marie Chevrier, head of the Ph.D. program in public affairs.
Dantzler agreed, noting that the project is an extraordinary opportunity to apply their research and theoretical knowledge in a practical setting. “This gives us a chance to see a problem and, instead of just reading about it in a book, apply what we’ve learned, and effect change,” says Dantzler.
The students laud the interdisciplinary nature of their respective graduate programs for preparing them to conduct a comprehensive, multipronged analysis and develop a successful pilot program that can be replicated in other regions and contexts. “For instance, if we can navigate the process and show that it works here, then we can make it work in an urban context, where we know the abandonment and foreclosure problems are ten-fold,” says Wood, adding, “This program really has the potential to be a win-win-win for everybody.”