ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White grew up here, rented his first apartment and bought his first home here.
But in 1998, he moved his family to Galloway Township, he said.
“It was nothing to do with the city. That’s a part of me,” said White, who still has many family members here, thinks highly of Atlantic City High School and spends virtually every day of the week here. “We wanted a bigger home and yard, when the kids were little.”
You can get more house and property for your money on the mainland, he said.
Two of his three grown sons have purchased homes in the city and live there. One is a teacher, the other a police officer, White said.
He would like to see more home ownership in the city because of the stability it brings.
“Any time you can bring more middle class families back to the city, it helps,” said White.
Low home ownership rates are associated with poverty, social problems and a lack of engagement with the community. In Atlantic City, where only one out of four homes are owner-occupied, increasing the level of home ownership is vital to the success of both the city and the county.
“One of the fatal flaws is Atlantic City’s atrociously low percentage of people living in a unit they own,” said 6th Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz, a Republican who grew up and still lives in Chelsea.
A healthy neighborhood should have a mean of about 65 percent owner- occupied housing, Kurtz said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2013 to 2017, only 26 percent of homes in Atlantic City were owner-occupied, compared with 67 percent countywide and 64 percent statewide and nationwide.
Kurtz, a member of the city’s Housing Authority board, would like to see the city increase its home ownership program and set a goal to get the city up to 40 percent owner-occupied housing in the next 10 years and 50 percent longer term.
Such an effort could go hand-in-hand with raising the number of residents here from the current 39,000 to about 50,000 over the next decade, as suggested by Mayor Frank Gilliam and others.
When people don’t own where they live, there is a lack of investment in the city, Kurtz said.
That has played out in Atlantic City, where residents have not cared over the years about how public money has been spent.
“Fiscal responsibility is the new ‘hobby’ in town, whereas it should just be a part of the life of the town,” said Kurtz.
The simple fact that some people prefer a more suburban lifestyle, like Chief White, has meant many successful people have left the city.
That has left a disproportionate number of poor living here, leaving the prospects of owning a home remote.
More than 40 percent of the city’s population is poor, compared to 14.4 percent in Atlantic County and 10 percent statewide, according to 2018 U.S. Census figures.
A rate of 40 percent or above puts it into the category of “extreme poverty,” according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
“Communities where poverty is so highly concentrated are associated with disadvantages for households living there over and above those disadvantages that might be expected because of the households’ limited resources,” according to a 2009 Federal Reserve study on Atlantic City.
Those disadvantages include growing up with few positive role models, a poor quality of public services, and more.
The federal government defines poverty as an income of $25,465 for a family of four; or $17,242 for a single person under age 65.
“A lot of (poor or modest income) people have problems it will take time to work out,” said Mosheh Math of Home Initiatives Inc., a nonprofit that runs home ownership classes in Atlantic City. “They need to get their credit score up, and do all the things to qualify for home ownership.”
James “Sonny” McCullough recently moved back to the Chelsea section of the city from the Seaview Harbor section of Egg Harbor Township. He had a large home on the bay overlooking Longport, along with a $34,000 property tax bill.
Now, he has a bedroom condo high up at the Ocean Club, pays $7,000 a year in property taxes, plus a condo fee of $850 a month.
His southeast-facing balcony looks out at the ocean, the shuttered Atlantic Club and over to Bader Field. His unit is so high, he can read the faint outline of the name of Atlantic Club’s earlier incarnation as the Hilton casino at its very top.
But McCullough, a longtime mayor of Egg Harbor Township before stepping down last year, has no illusions about the difficulties ahead for the city and how that may discourage people from choosing to live here.
His reasons were varied. His wife Georgene (McCabe) grew up in Chelsea, he said, and wanted to be close to the beach and Boardwalk. His roots are deep here. His grandfather Anthony Ruffu was mayor when Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall opened in 1929.
“I moved back because I care for city,” said McCullough.