By Michael Hill
At Newark City Hall, the phone rings every minute or two at the Department of Economic and Housing Development.
Callers asking about Newark’s Valentine’s Day special this Saturday at City Hall from 9 a.m. to noon: for $1,000, anyone — singles and couples — can buy a city-owned vacant lot. Only 100 are up for sale. You can find them all online.
“The interest right now has been so substantial that I think that we will have, I think all those properties will go by noon, if not 11 o’clock,” said Deputy Mayor for Newark Economic and Housing Development Baye Adofo-Wilson.
Or sooner. Newark wants to grow its tax base and wants buyers to build not just houses, but better and bigger neighborhoods.
“We believe a city is a whole bunch of people, but families are at the core of our community,” Adofo-Wilson said.
City council members agree with the principle but criticized the mayor for rolling out the plan before telling them.
There are some rules for the Valentine’s Day land sale where the city will offer one-stop shopping with bankers and builders at 920 Broad St.
It’s first come, first served. Plop down $500 for a property and it disappears from the list — no bidding, all sales final.
To close on the property, buyers must have the city Planning Board approve their site plan. They must have a financial commitment and/or proof of cash for the new building and pay the other $500. They must finish the construction within 18 months of closing and live in the new building for five years.
“There’s a lot of fun and excitement around this,” Adofo-Wilson said.
Newark is banking on buyers getting sticker shock at skyrocketing real estate prices in Brooklyn, Manhattan and even Jersey City and Hoboken.
“Newark is still an affordable place to get started,” said Adofo-Wilson.
And the deputy mayor acknowledges Newark has two typically tough challenges to overcome — high crime and low-performing schools.
“The city is changing rapidly,” Adofo-Wilson said. “What we want people to do is have the opportunity now when this city changes, they’re going to wish they would have bought this land because it’s probably going to appreciate substantially.”
“It’s about how you can change communities from the inside out,” said Dr. Jeffrey Robinson.
Robinson is the academic director at the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers Business School.
“In the city of Newark, the home ownership rate is something on the order of 22 percent. You compare that to the state of New Jersey where it’s 67 percent, you can see that Newark has a long way to go. So, why not? Why not try to attract more homeowners?” Robinson asked.
The deputy mayor says the city has the infrastructure — a major international airport, the biggest seaport on the east coast, major highways crisscrossing it and Amtrak, NJ Transit, PATH and NJPAC — for a population of 300,000.
“But the infrastructure can hold 500,000, so we have room to grow,” said Adofo-Wilson.
The deputy mayor kept emphasizing that Saturday’s sweetheart Valentine’s Day deal is first come, first served, so if you miss out on this deal, he says, stick around for something else in the city because Newark owns some 2,000 vacant lots.