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

14 comments:

dick nepon said...

And Allentown i still planning to build more housing on the old Hess's employee parking lot at 9th & Linden. What we need are community parking lots, not housing.
Mike is right, by creating demand, not glut, we will restore pricing and value. Of course, we also need to overhaul the school system to create demand.

Chris Casey said...

Mike, Mike, Mike, there you go again, using common sense and good reasoning to support a position.
You know that doesn't work!

That has nothing to do with getting votes! Isn't getting votes, collecting campaign contributions, and giving your buddies jobs and tax breaks what it is all about?!

Anonymous said...

In the 1980s we lived downtown near Hess's. Sorry to disagree with you, but we were eye-witnesses to the deconversion of many single family row homes along 9th, 10th, 11th and the side streets adjacent to the cemetery.
It was very easy to see what was happening as single-family cars were replaced with 4 or 5 vehicles, the 1 TV cable, with multiple boxes, the sole mailbox with 2 or 3. Why, even the tiny third floor attics were made into apts.

michael molovinsky said...

anon 10:26, i sat in on a number of zoning hearings in the mid 80's, and they were pretty tough about requirements already at that point. if you could provide an address of two, i'll research the deconversion. over the years i was involved with managing numerous center city properties, with few exceptions they were created before the early 60's. in the mid 80's there was about 20 small new buildings induced by a special tax incentive for banks, lowering commercial mortgage rates. may i add, at that time the demographic was still quite middle class.

michael molovinsky said...

anon 10:26, let me add that many row houses in allentown have half a third floor, which typically exists of two bedrooms. it is true that in the early years of conversion these 3th floors were made into efficiency apartments. attics, per se, were never made into apartments.

Looking To Escape said...

Allentown would currently be better served with a moratorium on new housing of all sorts in center city.


Allentown was built to serve another economic era. That economic era is gone. Preserving that old Allentown is counterproductive.
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Low income advocates should be run out of town as they are detached from economic reality. The city should look at the endless blocks of tired dilapidated housing that now occupies the core of the city and come up with a plan that reduces density and improves livability.
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I have suggested in the past that old housing gets replaced with new housing, maybe on a 3 old for 2 new basis. This would improve parking, add some green area and permit some uses such as local small playgrounds.
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I believe such housing would attract higher income people into the core of the city. Not everyone desires big lawns and high suburban taxes. With this influx of higher income & higher educated maybe a few wiil start businesses within Allentown.
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My hope would be the city takes the lead and does a seed project that would redo 4 blocks which would then encourage private developers to take over.

michael molovinsky said...

looking, your proposal is not so different than the zawarski project on walnut, between 8th and 9th. the problem with a mixed income area is that there is only a limited number of the more affluent willing to participate in such social experiments.

Jeff Pooley said...

MIke: Nice, thoughtful, counterintuitive post. I disagree on the facts, since in the 1970s there were so many Daddona era conversions. I also think that you grossly underestimate the costs of high-rental, high-absentee landlordism--not in 1955 or 1965, but in 2009. Renters vary, as do absentee landlords, but no one who lives downtown who dispute that homeowners have a greater stake in the neighborhood. Aggressive deconversion incentives would help a great deal. Somewhat aggressive pre-sale inspections are already helping.

Plus: there are many, many more young people than you think--Valley outsiders, mostly--who would look on downtown Allentown living favorably, in upper floors on Hamilton, in Victorian homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. The parking-lot moats (including LANTA's) are part of the problem.

Here's my email, by the way, regarding the other matter: pooley@muhlenberg.edu

michael molovinsky said...

jeff, it is my preference to make my points in my post, and then let the commentators have their say. of course the devil comes in restraining from injecting. so although we do disagree on when, how etc, lets talk semantics. lately even someone living in emmaus is called a absentee landlord. almost all landlords by definition are absentee, certainly any that owns more than one dwelling. i doubt if the owners of buildings around rittenhouse square, or central park are called absentee landlords. it's a pejorative term which represents the hall of shame mentality. i would suggest the city consider a different approach, the current one hasn't been that successful.

Looking To Escape said...

looking, your proposal is not so different than the zawarski project on walnut, between 8th and 9th. the problem with a mixed income area is that there is only a limited number of the more affluent willing to participate in such social experiments.


I am suggesting something on a broader scale for higher income. The city already has in place programs for lower income.
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I have walked by the Walnut street location and while it is nice, it's small.
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Mixed income is a block headed idea at best. You destroy property values by mixing low income rental with high value housing units. The Walnut street location would have been enhanced if the city got rid of the surrounding rental units.
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I do agree the city should be aiding people when they invest in a home in Allentown, not working against them with feel good social policy.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

The major difference between then and now is the economic make up the downtown’s residents. Research the census data and see the startling truth. The problem of this concentration of poverty into an area that was originally designed as primarily single family homes needs to be addressed. Rental Inspections was a good first step, a well run Weed and Seed program could help, de-conversions are a good idea, but for heaven’s sake now more high density housing should be allowed.
These basics have been largely ignored by both Ed and Roy.


Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

TO: 9.29 pm, 'LTE'

We have been through this before, first starting about twenty years ago. You are deluding yourself. The middle class will never move back into center city Allentown, at least not in our lifetimes. Any governmental programs that seek to bring this about would just be throwing money away... down the sewer.
As long as the whole ambiance, environment, etc. of downtown Allentown is akin to walking into a foreign country (and a 'third world' one at that) with absolutely zero police presence, crime rampant, quality of life deviant behavior running rampant...his vision of making downtown Allentown a destination of the white middle class is a pipedream. Citizens whose family heritage originally came from Western, Central, or Eastern Europe, do not want to rub elbows with people who have no desire whatsoever of learning how to speak English, first of all. Neither do these same descendants want to live amongst different races of people who don't know in the slightest what western culture is, what civilized living and health standards are, cleanliness, order, obeying societal conventions, peer pressure to live accordingly and in harmony with the wishes of one's neighbors, etc. IT IS A DISASTER here! it gets more worse every succeeding year. I don't think I would be far from the truth in saying that the descendants of the Allentonians who were living in this once great city, between 1900 and 1960... these descendants would very probably feel more comfortable and at-home living today back across the Atlantic Ocean in the 'old country' of their grandparents, rather than within center city Allentown. Sad to say this, but it is probably a true.

Anon.

Anonymous said...

anon 8:59,

Your post is pure ignorance.

Scott Armstrong

Looking To Escape said...

You are deluding yourself. The middle class will never move back into center city Allentown,


As I pointed out earlier, that Allentown that once was is now gone.
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If one looks at the New York City of the 1880's you would see quite a mix of ethnic groups and economic classes. New York City grew and became the center of finance for the United States. What destroyed New York City was not the social structure, it was the Share The Wealth/Big Apple theology of the liberal set.
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It's very ironic many who pulled the "D" lever while they lived in New York City are now moving to lower cost Conservative states. A simple rule of thumb is, given enough time, liberals will usually screw up everything to the point even they can't stand it.
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Allentown is a case in point.
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The issue with Allentown is not so much it's social make up, it's poor planning, feel good social strategy and a general societal thinking of everyone is entitled. These days in America, lack of effort is rewarded and in Allentown, you get declining property values and the mayor gets a dinner in his honor.