Ras Baraka gave an awkward pause when he got the question.
It’s the pause you might expect when someone is asked, “Which one of your children do you like the best?”
The question involved the people the mayor could call his second family, the residents of Newark.
Which recent city milestone was the most beneficial, he was asked:
- Companies such as Broadridge and (soon) Mars moving in;
- Multifamily, market-rate towers by developers Boraie and Dranoff leasing;
- Mulberry Commons opening;
or, the latest:
- Being one of 10 cities nationally to earn a grant and (top-level) assistance as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ effort to promote economic mobility in urban areas.
“They’re all important,” he finally offered.
And all part of Baraka’s efforts to bring Newark — a city finally escaping its recent past — into the present, with a look to the future.
“There’s always been a bit of skepticism about Newark and the economy here, and I think that that skepticism is gone,” he said. “It’s been gone for a couple of years now.
“People are trying to figure it out how to get involved in the market, how to benefit from what’s going on, how to get on the ground here.”
Baraka is trying to temper the rush.
All of the above happenings are good, he said, they just have to be done prudently — and in a way that truly prepares the city for the future.
“We have a lot happening,” he said. “With that comes everybody’s advice about how to get it done and how to expedite it or make it more robust. We have to be on top of that, making sure we make the right decisions about economic growth in the city — what we should do, what we shouldn’t do.
“And, because we witness all of this stuff that’s been happening around the country — in terms of cities that have experienced this kind of growth very fast — we have begun to put in tools or mechanisms to make sure that it doesn’t get so out of control that it drives people out, it drives mom-and-pop stores out, it drives residents out and that it turns so fast that we have no control over it.
“So, that’s why we put these systems in place: to help us kind of manage the growth at the same time.”
That’s what makes the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant so important.
It will help the city with a very specific, family-oriented issue: evictions.
Or, unfair or unjust evictions, interim Deputy Mayor and Chief Operating Officer Natasha Rogers said.
The Bloomberg grant — which comes with assistance from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab as well as behavioral insights teams — will help the city improve its efforts to reduce evictions by identifying measurable, data-driven ways that have true impact, Rogers said.
Rogers — a self-professed data and numbers lover — can rattle off the statistics on evictions. They are not pretty. Approximately 38,000 in Essex County, she said. And approximately 20,000 of those are in Newark, she said. She wants to cut that by 25 percent.
The biggest number, Rogers said, is the number of people being brought in to tackle the problem. And it’s not just the outside experts.
“Why this (grant) is important is because, while we’re doing the database-focused project, we also focus on the other stakeholders that give rise to this issue and affordability across the board.
“We’re talking about reducing evictions, and we know that the No. 1 issuer of evictions, because they are the largest landlord in the city of Newark, is the Newark Housing Authority. So, they have to have a seat at the table.
“These evictions are happening in the Essex County court system, so Essex County (officials) are going to be an integral part of this process.
“We also had a conversation with the lieutenant governor (Sheila Oliver), because she heads (the Department of Community Affairs), to talk about initiatives in that office that already exists that we, perhaps, are not leveraging in order to not only mitigate illegal evictions, but get things in order before that process begins.”
This is what has Rogers excited.
“It leads into the other component of the data,” she said. “This is not just a data project; this also is about behavioral insights. What causes us to even get into this space? What causes 40,000 people to be in eviction court to begin with. And that’s not even solving the root cause: How do we prevent this?”
It’s the looking-forward question.
“We know there’s a huge pipeline of development going on for the city of Newark,” Rogers said. “So, how do we even prevent people to be in substandard housing? How do we prevent people to not be in something that’s not affordable to them?”
Baraka, of course, has ideas, too.
He’s thrilled by the Bloomberg grant.
“It’s great when (groups) are able to provide you funds for what you think is necessary,” he said.
He’s equally excited about legislation regarding land banking that has passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s expected approval.
The bill would help Newark find usage — and potential housing — for its more than 1,000 vacant and abandoned properties, as it would allow a municipality to enter into a land banking agreement with a nonprofit or a redevelopment entity.
“The state just gave us the ability to create a land bank, and we’re really going to try to tackle a lot of infill housing and the neighborhoods, a lot of abandoned property, the vacant lots that exist there,” he said. “We are going to try to use some of the growth in the equity and the wealth going to downtown districts to help us support the kind of growth in those neighborhoods and those corridors.
“That’s a heavy, heavy, heavy lift. I think the land bank legislation is a first step in helping us get to where we need to go on that. At least get us on the right track. We are doing a lot of blight studies in these areas, trying to figure out really how to tackle this in a way that’s going to be beneficial to the residents that lived here.”
It always comes back to the residents — the families — for Baraka.
That’s why, when he finally answered the question, it may not have been a surprise that he picked Mulberry Commons.
Not necessarily because it’s a place where families can gather, but that it represents what can happen when various interests learn to put the common good first.
For Baraka, it was a lesson in getting everyone to play together nicely in the sandbox.
“There were a lot of folks who thought that would never get done because of the raucousness and noise between the developers and the city fighting over the projects and the city’s inability to pull people together and get it done,” he said. “But, because that actually took place, people feel relieved and they can see very, very difficult things in Newark can actually be accomplished.
“That’s what the ribbon-cutting on the park felt like to many people internally. Like we finally got to a point where people realized we can make difficult things happen. We don’t have to give up.”