The Camden Regional Equity Demonstration Project


Since World War II, the story of U.S. cities has been one of ever-expanding growth at the fringes and decline at the core. This pattern of development has led to concentrations of poverty in inner cities and inner suburbs, racial and economic segregation, and astounding consumption of rural land, resulting in environmental degradation, increased commute times, a spatial mismatch between the locations of low-wage/low-skill jobs and affordable housing, and isolation of mostly poor minority residents who remain in the core.

Camden, New Jersey, has been particularly hard hit by these trends. The steady exodus of middle-income residents and businesses that started in the postwar years has left the city with falling property values, a dwindling tax base, and inadequate resources to cover the city’s basic costs and services. Today, most of Camden’s neighborhoods are marked by dilapidated housing and abandoned or underutilized commercial properties.

However, for the past few years, Camden has been at the center of private and public redevelopment activities and reforms that hold the promise of transforming the city’s landscape, of creating local and regional housing and employment opportunities for its residents, and of positioning Camden to be an important participant in the region’s economic development activities. In addition to millions of dollars in private investment in the waterfront area and in related housing development and a half-billion dollars of Abbott school construction funding, the State of New Jersey has appointed a receivership executive over Camden who has been charged with reorganizing the municipal government and allocating millions of dollars in state aid to underwrite infrastructural improvements and other development projects.

Taken together, these investments represent the largest redevelopment attempt in the city’s history, and perhaps one of the most ambitious ever attempted for a distressed city of this size. This new activity presents opportunities for municipal leaders in Camden and surrounding communities to align local strategies in a manner that might promote greater regional integration and development, to the benefit of the larger region. The Camden revitalization efforts offer an unparalleled opportunity to examine whether and how a city in receivership and financial crisis can regain its political and economic vitality and become an asset for the region.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Over the next three to five years, MDRC, in partnership with the Reinvestment Fund and the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, will build a body of knowledge about the origins, implementation, achievements, and challenges of the redevelopment strategies underway in Camden. The study will also examine early signs of whether and how residents, the city as a whole, and the greater metropolitan region benefit from Camden’s revitalization efforts.

Specifically, the study will:

  • Describe the robustness of redevelopment-related interventions — both policies and programs — implemented to meet Camden’s redevelopment goals.
  • Describe the involvement of Camden’s public sector in the redevelopment efforts, including the provision of municipal departmental supports and enhancement of institutional capacities, and investigate whether these efforts included any coordination with municipalities from surrounding jurisdictions.
  • Describe the role of civic leaders and associations in the city’s revitalization and whether relationships were established with their counterparts elsewhere in the region and state.
  • Document any changes that emerge in state or municipal policies that have a bearing on development in Camden and the region, such as changes in policies with regard to land use, housing, taxes, and local governance.
  • Examine specifically the local and regional redevelopment strategies pursued to build value in residential and commercial real estate markets in the city and surrounding areas.
  • Document the social and economic vitality of Camden, including whether changes occur in the housing and economic and social circumstances of residents in the city relative to their neighbors in surrounding communities.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The research will rely on a range of research methods to explore, examine, and describe the following three core strands of inquiry:

  • Public Administration: Document how Camden’s public sector responds, supports, and manages the range of redevelopment efforts. Examine efforts to strengthen the municipal government’s internal capacities for this purpose, and whether these efforts influence perceptions of Camden as a viable place to live and of city government as a partner with which to do business. Particular attention will be paid to municipal structures and services for supporting the residential and commercial real estate development currently underway for Camden’s revitalization.
  • Civic Engagement and Regional Collaboration: Document the work of civic leaders, civic associations, and regional coalitions to mobilize their constituents to voice their collective concerns in local, county, and state policy settings. Determine whether and how these leaders and associations influence the course or pattern of development activities.
  • Housing Redevelopment and Land Use Patterns: Document the scale and location of affordable and market-rate housing investments in the city and describe the extent to which these investments improve housing choice for low-and middle-income residents. Track indicators of housing trends, economic revival, neighborhood conditions, and resident quality of life.

MDRC and its research partners will track outcomes with respect to how Camden is changing and how the city’s residents are affected over time: whether they stay in Camden or move. A sample of relevant indicators and outcomes is listed below.

Place — Relying on aggregate indicators and resident surveys, we will track such indicators as:

  • Housing market activity — property sales, median value
  • Housing conditions — age of housing stock, demolitions
  • Land use patterns — type of redevelopment, zoning changes, brownfield remediation
  • Population changes — shifts in income and racial composition and concentration
  • Neighborhood safety — crime rates, perceptions of crime
  • Tax/fiscal capacity — tax revenue, collection rates, foreclosures

People — Relying on resident surveys and key stakeholder interviews and focus groups, we will track such indicators as:

  • Perceived benefits, risks, concerns related to redevelopment and revitalization activities
  • Views about city governance and service delivery
  • Changes in economic and material circumstances of residents (well-being and quality of life)