When I ran as a long-shot independent for mayor in 2005, against Ed Pawlowski and Bill Heydt, the first thing I did was take The Morning Call reporter on a tour of the properties that I managed. As an intercity landlord, operating apartments between 4th and 12th, Walnut and Tilghman Streets, I knew that the rentals would become Allentown's biggest problem. After the WW2, it became fashionable to live in a twin or small ranch, and Allentown's row houses began being divided into apartments. Those apartments were mostly occupied by singles or childless couples, and helped keep downtown and Hamilton Street vital, long past many of it's sister cities. In the 1960's, despite the thousands of converted apartments, center city was clean, and Allentown was the All American City. Both the tenants and landlords were hard working and conscientious. As the urban poor from New York and New Jersey discovered the clean streets of Allentown, and it's moderately priced apartments, a steady influx of new residents arrived daily. These changes were not encouraged by the landlords. Nobody ever purchased a building hoping to replace their conscientious middle class occupants, with a poorer, more problematic tenant base. Various social agencies staked many of these newcomers to the first month rent and security deposits. Although politically incorrect, I said at the time that Allentown was creating a poverty magnet. My phrase and analysis back then is now recognized as an unintended consequence of such programs. During Heydt's administration, Allentown passed a Rental Inspection Law. Some viewed this as the solution to the rental problem, I didn't fully agree; You cannot legislate pride of ownership. Bad operators could, and easily did, cross the T's and dot the i's. Pawlowski's solution has been to tag buildings as unfit for habitation, so many, that the process itself has created blight. Halls of Shame, either by the city or private groups, only stigmatize both the property and owner, but don't produce a solution. The programs in place, if applied with more flexibility, can work. The school district is starting to show concern about the consequences of more apartments and students. Recent zoning changes allowing the conversion of commercial space by right, rather than by variance, could well add to the problem. At the end of the day, all landlords want to see their investment appreciate. The city must learn to work with that basic incentive as a vehicle for change.
UPDATE: There will be a special public meeting with City Council Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m., concerning the housing problems in Allentown. The flyer below was created by the Tenant Association of Allentown. Although I do not agree with all their methods, this blog supports the concept of advocacy in Allentown, and is glad to publicize their agenda.