ATLANTIC CITY (February 7, 2020) – New details emerged about the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s proposed rooming house conversion plan Friday morning during a public hearing as residents and business owners sought clarity about how the program would work and who it might benefit.
The specifics of the rooming house conversion plan have not been finalized since the full CRDA Board of Directors has not yet voted on it. A preliminary estimate of $1.2 million would be allocated for the program, which CRDA officials anticipated could fund about four projects. The CRDA board is expected to consider the conversion plan Feb. 18.
Attendees of Friday’s hearing expressed a mix of support and skepticism, with most acknowledging that substandard living conditions must be addressed and adequate affordable housing options must be available for those who need it.
But questions arose about whether the plan would be enticing enough to convince smaller investors to assume additional financial risk and whether the proposal was simply targeting a symptom of a larger problem.
Only vacant rooming houses would qualify for the program that would provide interest-bearing loans for approved applicants to either convert or demolish properties.
The CRDA would prefer to repurpose or tear down rooming houses that do not comply with existing land uses or possess the proper permits in an effort to alleviate the large number of illegal units.
“Our plan is to provide assistance in the form of a loan for the conversion of vacant rooming houses to other lawful uses that can encourage developers to purchase and improve these properties, which will help reduce the overwhelming burden of (hundreds of) rooms that exist now in the city,” said Lance Landgraf, director of planning and development for the CRDA.
The exact number of rooming houses in Atlantic City varies, depending on the agency. The CRDA identified 53 rooming houses, while the state Department of Community Affairs lists 56. Landgraf said the total number of rooms is about 492, down from a high of more than 600 a couple of years ago.
Dan Mittelman, of Atlantic City, said local officials may be underestimating the number of rooms because of all the illegal conversions throughout the city. He said getting a better system in place to identify and “get rid” of the illegal operators was “most important.”
“All of these issues, in my mind, go back to enforcement and, maybe, your $1.2 million could be used better” on identifying those operations, Mittelman said. “You might be able to use that money to close 15 or 20 units a year.”
Landgraf admitted there were likely more rooming house units than city and state officials were aware of, but that efforts had to be made to address the sheer number of them, whatever it may actually be.
“There are rooming houses in the city that are not licensed,” Landgraf said. “We want to get rid of those. We have too many, whether they’re licensed, not licensed, whatever. There’s too many of them based on (the) population.”
Both the number of people occupying rooming houses in Atlantic City and their proximity to one another in certain neighborhoods violate city regulations, which mirror those found in the state’s Rooming and Boarding House Act. According to city and state law, the total number of people living in rooming houses in Atlantic City cannot exceed half of 1% of the total population. Based on 2018 U.S. Census population data, Atlantic City should only have about 190 people in rooming houses.
City officials have said rooming houses are a burden on municipal resources, specifically public safety, because they are often hot spots for criminal activity, such as drugs and prostitution. In 2018, the Atlantic City Police Department responded to more than 800 calls for service to the city’s known rooming houses.
Michael Scanlon expressed concern that the conversion plan was targeting the wrong issue. Scanlon’s father owns multiple rooming houses in the city, including one around the corner from the needle exchange on Tennessee Avenue. Scanlon said many of the existing and lawful rooming house operators “don’t want drug addicts” or “drug dealers” on their property, but the abundance of social services in the city attracts people from surrounding areas who can only afford to live in low-income housing.
“That’s part of the problem,” Scanlon said about the exchange’s location. “Any drug dealer in their right mind is going to try to get in a building where the drug addicts are.”
Evan Sanchez, city resident and co-founder of Authentic City Partners, said his organization supported the CRDA initiative. Authentic City Partners is among those responsible for the Orange Loop project on Tennessee and New York avenues and St. James Place.
“In addition to the financial support here … it’s important also to think about what else needs to be done to actually move from a rooming house-driven economy to the future economy that, I think, most of us in this room want to see,” he said, noting that code and zoning enforcement, relocation of social services, condemnation and redevelopment were all “tools in the toolbag that I think we should be using to move the city forward.”
DAVID DANZIS, Staff Writer