Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cramped Neighborhoods=Poor Neighborhoods

(Although the developer's caption says Basin, this photo on their website is titled "Dekalb front." To me, this looks like a warehouse.)
I researched the history of one of Norristown's houses for an article I did some years back. It was a brick rowhome in the West End, built by a developer named Jamison in 1885. Jamison was responsible for a lot of the rowhouses built in town at that time.

Currently, the residents of most of these rowhouses are lower income, if not downright poor. Some are lower-middle income, but you'd be hard-pressed to anyone better off in those neighborhoods. Many of the residents rent their houses, and some only rent a one-floor apartment in those small dwellings.

But when I looked up the previous owners of this one house, I found homeowers who were solid middle-class. Some were tradesmen and middle managers, but many were entrepreneurs who owned their own businesses. These were the people Jamison built his houses for. Back then, most of the poor lived in tenement and "company" rooming houses, many down near the river. It was unheard of to build low-income housing. If you were poor, you packed your families into whatever space you could afford.

As the middle-class homeowners in the rowhomes expanded their families, or got raises and promotions at work, they moved to the newer, bigger, twin houses being built on streets farther west, and in parts of the North End. Their kids and grandkids moved to single houses, then outside of town.

Meanwhile, the rowhomes held their value through about 1910 (and the price went up a few thousand). Then, except for a spike because of the high inflation right before the Depression, they fell in value. Jamison sold the house I studied for a price amounting to about $54,000 in today's dollars. By 1955, the sale price was (in today dollars) $38,000.

The lesson of history is, the smaller a house is, and the more cramped a neighborhood is, the more likely people will move out, into a bigger dwelling with more land. The faster the turnover, the faster the house loses its value. This makes the neighborhood eventually lose value as well, until the only people willing to live there are low income.

So let's consider the "stacked townhomes" proposal for 1202 Dekalb Street that goes before the Planning Commission tonight. These are actually condos, which will be sold at market rate. On the street I researched, Jamison built 23 houses on 1.34 acres. Sarah Peck is proposing 24 houses on half the amount of land. Twice as small, twice as close to the neighbors, as your typical Norristown rowhome. That means, even though the housing units are being built for middle-income residents, those owners aren't likely to stay long. They aren't meant to, really. These are first-time homeowner dwellings.

But the faster the turnover, the faster the condos will lose their value. There are other factors, of course. If the style of the houses makes them look outdated quickly, if the building quality is such that they look worn and dingy very fast, or need repair constantly, this kind of high-density development could bring down the value of the neighborhood in as little as 10 or 20 years.

If history is an accurate classroom, "stacked townhomes" at 1202 Dekalb and at Dekalb and Elm will likely be slums in 50 to 70 years. If the houses last that long. Norristonians at the Tricentennial will look at these blocks and wonder what we were thinking.

We need to demand an end to "stacked" housing in Norristown.

1 comment:

  1. Over population = slums, you know that I know that and so do they. So basically that must be the plan. It's hard to believe until you see the new zoning map where just about everything is now r3. And every building that falls will be replaced by sardine can units. And by now, all of Norristown knows that the zoning rules mean absolutely nothing.