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Nov 7, 2009
The Apartment Myth
Over and over, people contribute Allentown's problems to center city houses being converted to apartments, as if this occurred recently. Many will be surprised to know that almost all the converted apartments existed for over 60 years. When the GI's returned from WW2, the trend was for small single family houses with small lawns, i.e. Levittowns. The mass conversion of the row houses took place in the late 40's and early 50's, and more less stopped by the early 60's. These "new" apartments were mostly occupied by either singles or childless couples. The tenants were buyers at Hess's and engineers at PPL. Because of them, Hamilton Street remained viable for twenty years beyond the main street in Bethlehem, Easton and Reading. Allentown was voted during this era the All American City. During those 50 years, 1940 to 1990, nobody complained about the apartments or the tenants. Ironically, more apartment inventory has been added recently, by creating "loft" apartments in former commercial buildings. The Urbanists think they can revitalize Hamilton Street with upper story housing. While the proponents mistakenly think that they will attract a middle class demographic, they are in fact just adding to the total inventory and thus the problem. Beside the urbanists, advocates for low income housing still demand more units. In reality, it's apparent we have an abundance of low income housing. Recently, there has been a trend to built new, center city single housing; attempting to attract a middle class with disposable income to bolster Hamilton Street. Neighborhood parking lots have been sacrificed for this concept. In fact, we are just building tomorrow's rental houses. Allentown, unlike larger cities, is a horizontal community. There is no reason, geographic or otherwise, which compels the middle class to move to center city.
Allentown would currently be better served with a moratorium on new housing of all sorts in center city. Considering that over 7000 units exist, owned by 5000 different owners, deconversion hopes are unrealistic. Strict enforcement of current zoning standards, concerning square footage, parking, etc. would suffice in reasonably curtailing additional living units. By limiting supply, demand can improve the quality of life for everybody.
The image shown is part of a watercolor by Karoline Schaub-Peeler