Aug 4, 2015

The Allentown Apartment Myth, A Molovinsky Thesis

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 above post is reprinted from November of 2009. I present it today as a counter point of view to associate Bernie O'Hare's post about what went wrong in Allentown. O'Hare assigns too much emphasis on scattered site Section 8.  I managed numerous buildings in center city Allentown.

 *This post was written in 2009, and the new housing refers to the then new townhouses at 8th and Walnut, and others planned for more Parking Authority lots. Those "new" townhouses have since been sold at auction for 50 cents on the dollar, and are in fact now rentals.

photograph of 10th and Chew Streets, 1948


Charlie Sch said...

Housing prices skyrocketed in New York City and northern New Jersey. That caused many low income persons to look to eastern Pennsylvania for alternative places to live, including the Poconos, Reading, Lancaster, Philadelphia and Allentown. Thirty years ago, even Philadelphia had very few Latinos.

Compared to their former homes, cities such as Allentown offered more living space, less congestion, much lower costs and better schools. Hundreds of thousands moved into eastern PA, particularly from Brooklyn, Jersey City, etc. Those neighborhoods have now been gentrified and housing prices have continued to skyrocket.

The influx of poor people then caused white flight out of Allentown. Many Allentown houses were owned by seniors, and once they moved out, the houses were turned into rentals with large numbers of occupants. School taxes went up, and many middle income people no longer wanted their kids to attend Allentown schools.

The Afflerbach administration caused all of these problems to multiply, with the enormous increase in pension debts and the loss of 1/3 of the police force in one year. However, those older officers were since replaced with more energetic and better educated younger officers who have helped to turn the city around.

Also, the economy in Puerto Rico has been on a roller coaster, and is now suffering a debt crisis. This may cause more people to move to the mainland.

More recently, there was an influx of central and south americans into the area. There has been a large increase in the Dominican population in eastern PA. However, the stats show that illegal immigration in the US has slowed.

michael molovinsky said...

charlie@9:09, there are many aspects to the changes in allentown. there was, what the NY Times called the Latinization of the lehigh valley. vast numbers of hispanics, mostly un or low employed, did move into the area within only a few years. that in itself created myths, such as signs and billboards in the airport in san juan, nyc and jersey city, urging people to move to allentown. daddona is mostly the victim of these myths. however, a profound demographic change certainly did take place. because of being a center city landlord at the time, i have firsthand knowledge about what actually occurred.

doug_b said...

To add to Charlie's 9:09 comment: I grew up in Allentown. Lived on 16th st, near West Park. Allentown succeeded because there were good paying, blue collar jobs. These lower middle class people (who had a good set of values and behaviors) were content to live in the row homes surrounding center city. Also what was unique was Hamilton St. From 10th to 5th - all the shopping condensed into one compact area. It was better than a strip mall.

However, when those jobs vanished, so did the middle class. Property values went down, this creates a vacuum, and indigent, low class people fill that vacuum.

100+ year old row homes are obsolete. No design lasts forever. I don't see middle class people wanting purchase a home that does not appreciate in price, nor lacking what are now basic amenities such as a two car garage (I can't think of any middle class person who wants to park their BMW 330i on the street). To keep jamming low income people into these homes creates a ghetto.

IMO these row homes need to be replaced if you want to attract solid middle class citizens. However the question is why? Why rebuild center city Allentown housing when there is no more downtown? Except for two or three blocks of new buildings and a hockey arena.

Anonymous said...

And that Ladies and Gentleman "Is the rest of the Story"!! Thank You Michael!!
You would still make a very good Mayor! Something to consider!
"The Old Allentown Curmudgeon" (PJF)

Anonymous said...

Another factor to consider, New York City is a busy gateway for immigrants. Cheap flights to many places, relatives already living there. Allentown is a major stop for westward immigrant migration. The first stop for our new residents is rarely going to be Punxsutawney!

Fred Windish

Charlie Sch said...

The exact same rowhouses in Allentown are selling for 10 times as much money in some other northeastern cities - even in some neighborhoods in Baltimore. Allentown has some high quality row-housing that was able to stand up to some abuse in recent years because it was built well and was maintained well in previous decades.

People tell me that housing prices have been increasing in Center City Allentown over the last 2 years, after years of stagnation or declines.

Charlie Sch said...

I remember reading that there was a movement of 220,000 people from the Bronx and Brooklyn to Pennsylvania in a 10 year period.

doug_b said...

Charlie @1:20 "The exact same rowhouses in Allentown are selling for 10 times as much money in some other northeastern cities - even in some neighborhoods in Baltimore"

I checked on Zillow - there are an awful lot of foreclosed row home listings. Around 14th and Linden I see a 3 br listed for $107k. Not my cup of tea.

I would avoid comparison to Baltimore, where there has been 45 murders in July.

michael molovinsky said...

doug@1:20, this blog discourages chats between commenters, although your readership and comments are welcome. currently it's a buyer's market, with corresponding depressed prices. i will be doing a post shortly on the inter-city home market. doug, please refrain from your assertion that row houses are passé, which you have made already several times on this blog. there are thousands of row houses in allentown; they will not be tearing them down. understand that in more prosperous cities, they are called townhouses, and command as much or more than the mansions in suburbia.

Anonymous said...

I've owned many homes as residences in the Allentown-LV area from 1970's on. The determination that row homes are not attractive, is not my observation. Our first home in the 200 block of 15th street, consisted of beautiful natural woodwork, sturdy construction, stained glass windows,solid brick exteriors, plaster walls, and many more interesting features, plus was within walking distance to food, hardware, and other necessities. Our later homes, which we sought because it was the "thing to do", were all wallboard, squared room single floor boxes which offered no esthetic interest at all, and were priced in retrospect well beyond their actual worth. What is missing is not the building of a new Levittown, but pride in what is already there, by owners, renters, government entities, as well as a financial, educational, and esthetic reason to return.

Anonymous said...

In the Lehgih Valley, including all suburbs, there is not a house built in the last 50 years that has the quality of the materials used to build our 1913 house in the West Park area. The layout is not contemporary but it is spacious and energy efficient. I am happy I chose to live here after attending a house tour in the early 1980's that gave me an opportunity to see what is behind the rowhouse facades.
I keep reading comments that the Allentown housing stock is old. It was old when I moved to Allentown 40+ years ago. The difference is that the houses were well maintained when they were owner occupied, but were neglected and deteriorated due to the combination of careless tennants and landlords, and the lack of code enforcement.

Guy Williams said...

Would just like to add that I believe its not so much the construction of our housing stock its the density that turn people off. The narrow alleys to a garage if you have one and many garages were turned to storage because of their smallness. That plus the fact most occupants have two cars makes the thought of living in townhouses/rowhomes less desirable. To compare to urban cities with their transportation and urban ammenities is a joke. People today for the most part have the same opinions about Allentowns housing stock as they did after the Korean War where the south, east and west ends had the most desirable locations to raise a family. Even the development of Westbrook Park in the late 50s had more space. We just have to find a way to change the density in our neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

Density cannot be the issue, since there are many "townhouse" developments springing up in the suburbs. I try to understand why people are willing to live in such close proximity to others in the suburbs but not in the city, without the added advantage of proximity to other amenities like neighborhood eateries, stores and service providers, that are within a few blocks for city residents.

MarcioWilges said...

That’s what modernization does if someone doesn't take the time to set aside locations with historic value. It's my hope that at least some of our history doesn't undergo total removal in the end!