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Cascade: No. 58, Summer 2005

Pennsauken, NJ, Community Strives for Integration

Keith L. Rolland, community development advisor, wrote the following article. John J. Wackes, community affairs specialist; Christy Chung Hevener, community affairs analyst; and Eugene Park, intern, compiled census and housing-loan data that accompany the article.

Eighty volunteers from a nonprofit neighbors organization and government affiliate are engaged in an usual experiment to maintain racial integration in Pennsauken Township, NJ, an inner-ring older suburb of Philadelphia.

Originally settled by the Lenni Lenape and, later, Quakers, Pennsauken Township borders affluent Cherry Hill as well as impoverished Camden. Pennsauken became a township in 1892 and has traditionally been a blue-collar community. In recent years, it has been attracting young professionals. The 12.5-square-mile township has single-family houses at a wide range of prices (see table).

In 1996, the nonprofit Neighbors Empowering Pennsauken (NEP) was formed by seven neighbors who valued their community's cultural diversity but who were concerned about a growing number of for-sale signs by white homeowners, reports of racial steering by realtors, and several negative incidents in area schools. NEP recruits volunteers and raises funds for leadership development and other programs.

Lynn Cummings, NEP's chairperson and a Pennsauken homeowner for 33 years, said: “Integration doesn't just happen. People have to plan to make it happen. If we didn't intervene when African Americans and Hispanics were buying houses and whites were leaving, Pennsauken would have become a segregated community.” Pennsauken's homeownership rate has remained high (80.7 percent in 1990 and 80.4 percent in 2000, see table).

In 2000, the Pennsauken Stable Integration Governing Board (PSIGB) was created as an advisory committee of Pennsauken Township “to reduce the underrepresentation of whites in Pennsauken's markets for housing and schools and to reduce the underrepresentation of people of color in its civic life.”

For the past three years, NEP and PSIGB volunteers have organized an annual event in which new homeowners are treated to a buffet provided by area restaurants, hear welcoming words from the mayor, police and fire chiefs, and the school superintendent, and are eligible for door prizes. Last fall, 250 homeowners attended the event.

Harold M. Adams, a housing appraiser and chairperson of the PSIGB, said: “People love the event and say ‘we've never been anywhere where we were welcomed like this.' They tell their friends and this helps get other people to take a look at Pennsauken.” PSIGB has also attracted homeowners by seeking positive local newspaper coverage about Pennsauken's quality of life and inclusiveness and mailing brochures to Philadelphia home sellers that promise “suburban living within your reach.” Adams added that the township strictly enforces its housing code because property deterioration makes it difficult to attract new homeowners.

One of NEP's ongoing activities has been to organize study circles in which Pennsauken adults or teenagers meet to discuss films or articles that concern race. Cummings said, “We've discovered we're more alike than different. People who have met in the study circles have formed lasting friendships.”

Last year, NEP held a leadership development program that prepared 33 people who lived or worked in Pennsauken to become volunteer leaders in Pennsauken's civic organizations. The participants, who were from different ethnic and racial groups, attended NEP workshops on meeting organization and follow-up and group dynamics in a program funded in part by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NEP will sometimes address residents' concerns, for example, on crime or zoning, by arranging for speakers to meet with residents. “It may be just a perception, but it's real to the people who are concerned,” Cummings said.

Meanwhile, PSIGB has sought to attract white homeowners by advertising on billboards in northeast Philadelphia and other areas, holding housing tours and seeking positive media coverage. Pennsauken home-purchase loan data (see table) suggest that PSIGB may be having some success in meeting this goal and show a steady increase in conventional lending from 1999 to 2003.

Early this year, Pennsauken Township took the highly unusual step of declining the offer of Medford, NJ, to sign a regional contribution agreement (RCA) with the township. The agreement would have provided Pennsauken with about $3 million to assume some of Medford's state-directed responsibility to provide low-income housing. Adams said that the township turned down the offer because it felt that all communities have a moral obligation to do their fair share of providing affordable housing and because the RCA funds often have homeowner resale restrictions that depress housing values.

Adams said that the RCAs “have been a vehicle enabling many communities to avoid building affordable housing.” He said that at least 50 percent of the RCAs have been sold to older towns that needed the funds to provide housing for their low-income residents and that this process “pools resources in a few existing low-income areas and adds to the concentration of poverty in New Jersey.” Moreover, he added, low-income residents are located far from the areas where many jobs are created.

Adams noted that there is a continuing cycle in both New Jersey and the nation in which investment, businesses, and tax revenues are drained from older communities to new ones. At any one time, one-fifth of New Jersey's older communities are fighting on their own to survive, he said.

A big challenge facing NEP and the PSIGB is trying to improve Pennsauken's public schools, which have had low test scores.

NEP and PSIGB have received consulting services from the Fund for an Open Society (OPEN), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that strives to create integrated communities by attracting people of underrepresented races. OPEN was founded in 1975 by James Farmer and Morris Milgram, two leaders in the civil rights movement. Milgram helped build one of the nation's first planned integrated communities, Concord Park, outside Philadelphia.

Pennsauken Township recently signed an agreement with Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, North Carolina, for a $1.6 billion redevelopment of a nearly three-mile stretch of Pennsauken's waterfront that would create 3,100 new homes, 550,000 square feet of mixed-use commercial space, a hotel and conference center, golf course, community recreation center, and parks.

Don DeMarco, OPEN's executive director, said that the redevelopment will provide “move-up housing” for existing Pennsauken homeowners and should not cause residential displacement since it will re-use old industrial properties.

For information, contact Harold M. Adams at (856) 662-3856 or hmadams@comcast.net, or Lynn Cummings at (856) 662-7982 or lcummings@lcdc.us; www.twp.pennsauken.nj.us; www.opensoc.org.

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