Blight mostly takes care of itself in thriving communities. Buildings don’t become abandoned, decrepit or eyesores because people and businesses want to own and occupy them, and maintain them for their own use, enjoyment or profit.
That hasn’t been the case in Atlantic City for many decades. Even while the city’s casino industry enjoyed an extraordinarily profitable East Coast legal gaming monopoly, too little of its economic activity reached residential neighborhoods and nongaming businesses to make much of a difference.
Atlantic City government has tried to reduce blight at least since the negative national coverage it suffered while hosting the 1964 Democratic National Convention — and continuing throughout the 40-plus years of the casino era.
Stories of poverty and blight in the shadows of glistening gambling palaces were a recurring cliché for out-of-state media until the turn of the century, when the focus turned to the city’s vulnerability to casinos in nearby states.
Efforts to reduce blight couldn’t keep up with its spread. The city targeted its 11 worst eyesores in 2003, but seven years later nine of them were untouched. After more lists and more demolitions, there were still about 500 abandoned houses when the administration of Mayor Don Guardian started demolishing those found to be unsafe. That’s still the working estimate today, as city inspectors seek to evaluate every blighted property.
The perennial problem became a crisis with the double blow of the shrinking casino industry and the severe U.S. recession. By the middle of this decade, only 26 percent of city homes were owner-occupied, well under half the rate for Atlantic County and New Jersey. Likewise its vacancy rate was double that of the state at 23 percent.
Atlantic City has gotten some help addressing blight from the state in the past. In 2015, for example, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority provided $3 million to demolish a handful of eyesore motels at its entrance.
Egg Harbor Township currently is seeking $2.4 million in federal funding to tear down four more in its West Atlantic City section.
The best hope is New Jersey’s comprehensive plan to help Atlantic City recover, which includes reducing blight in one of its seven pillars — planning and development.
The state recovery program is wisely getting input and help from the city’s strong neighborhood associations, which already have an interest in blight reduction. The Venice Park Homeowners Association has mapped vacant properties as part of an effort to tell which are salvageable and which should be demolished. The group wants the city and state to develop a citywide blight-reduction plan and find funding for it.
This new state and city effort to hold property owners accountable and get rid of ugly and unsafe buildings will face the same economic headwinds as in the past. The state’s report last year on Atlantic City noted that since 1969, poverty among its residents has increased to 38 percent, compared to the state rate of 10 percent.
That’s why the best hope for ending Atlantic City blight is that the state’s plan includes six other pillars, and the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy is determined to keep addressing the city’s needs until it gets results. Making it more inviting to live in and do business will contribute to its recovery, and that recovery is what will transform the city’s landscape.