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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Destroying Union City

Imagine a place, with a postcard-picture view of the world's economic and entertainment center, existing housing and a developed transportation infrastructure allowing for commuter and commercial traffic in all directions.

Imagine a place with tree-lined streets just minutes away from the cosmopolitan center of the nation -- if not the world -- featuring the centers of finance, the international media, all sorts of entertainment choices and even just an hour away from picturesque farmland and beaches. It's closer to Times Square than Astoria, Greenpoint, Maspeth or the new Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn!

Imagine this place being affordable, with rents for apartments and businesses available for much less than across the river. Imagine a place where your greenery is in your backyard, and not some dog-crap-infested dog run on the Upper West Side's Riverside Park...or the horse-crap-befouled Central Park South.

This is no fantasy. This is Hudson County, New Jersey.

Hudson County is host to this immense, untapped potential. Those daring to
capitalize on it stand to create wealth and get rich. But standing in the way are some Hudson County political leaders, who stay in power by keeping that potential captive, their residents poor, and young entrepreneurs out.

Union City -- located just two miles from the heart of the world's financial and cultural center, New York City -- should be a regional economic powerhouse. Ideally located within range of rail, ferry and bus routes to New York and numerous highways and railways for commerce to the entire Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, Union City could offer short commutes and a postcard-picture view of Midtown to upwardly-mobile, high-income workers and a cost-effective alternative for technology companies and other industries seeking to avoid high-rent Midtown Manhattan and have better transportation for commercial shipments. Instead, Union City sits in government-induced squalor.

Union City's mayor, Brian Stack, and his slate of commissioners (the city is run by a five-person commission which then chooses a mayor) routinely win re-election with over 90 percent of the vote. This, my friends, is political capital. Stack -- a nominal Democrat -- even is best buds with New Jersey's uberGovernor Chris Christie, whose approval ratings are soaring past 70 percent nine months before the 2013 statewide election. But Stack refuses to use his ample political capital to open his Union City up for growth.

As we all learned in high school biology class, success kills parasites. Just as the most efficient parasite kills its host and the most vicious pandemic wipes out its entire victim population, the most successful politicians often sow the seeds of their ruin from the fruit of overwhelming election victories and the arrogance it often breeds.

Union City's elected officials, not content with winning local elections virtually by acclamation, give out toys and turkeys during the holidays through a web of curious nonprofits and political organizations. The quid pro quo is clear: vote for us and get more handouts.

Union City doesn't need more people wanting free turkeys. The increase in the number of people wanting a free meal should not be -- and is not -- something Union City should be proud of. But there is Brian Stack, boasting that he's given away 10,000 turkeys to residents.  That represents almost half the votes in the last state senate election in which Brian Stack ran.  You can't compete with free turkey, apparently.

(Problem: What's the message received by potential investors and homebuyers? Here it is: Union City has no customers and all your new neighbors will be dirt poor. Now imagine what that does to drive away new business, and to home prices.)

Brian Stack is cynically aware that the turkey giveaway sends the not-too-coded message to homeowners of, here's all the people your taxes are going to, there's more of them every day, and you're going to pay for more turkeys next year, suckers! In a land of one person, one vote, two homeless men can outvote the one homeowner ... and decide to raise his taxes, cut his services, and pee on his bushes! But Brian Stack, and his equally cynical allies around the state, don't realize that businessowners don't see a workforce, or a customer base, when you show them poor people on a turkey line. They do see a bunch of people running up your taxes, using up every government service available, loitering in the parks and on streetcorners and urinating and defecating in alleyways. They see grime, crime and filth.

They see undesirables. That is a politically incorrect sentiment, but that's the business bottom line.  Businessowners -- and the banks rejecting them for loans -- don't see people who won't be customers or good neighbors. They see people who will drive away the customers and neighbors they want.

This is not how you grow an urban city. This is how you grow Camden-on-the-Hudson.

To own a home in Union City is to be a dying breed. The city keeps homeowners alive, just alive enough to pay their property taxes which account for only 60 percent of the city's budget (state grants account for
much of the rest). Far from needing the intervention of local government, this growth needs only the removal of obstacles placed in the way of productive business owners and home and condo owners. Union City needs only an attitude change, but this will require government fiscal responsibility. And if one glaring example is any indication, Union City's city planners better not do any planning.

Its local government currently depends on state special aid to the tune of tens of millions each year, and its school system is considered one of only 31 underprivileged "Abbott" districts in the state and so it qualifies for and receives over $170 million in special school aid. Yet for all this, the brain scientists in Union City recently closed two high schools to combine their enrollments into one new facility, upon which it was promptly discovered the new Union City High School didn't have enough space for all four grades of high school. Yes, that's right, this 21st Century planning is why Union City now has the Jose Marti Freshman Academy. Because its new high school is too small and -- at a reported $500 million cost -- was obsolete when it opened.

It is no surprise that Union City's homeowners and remaining industries have fled to more hospitable alternatives. The remaining tax base is not sufficient to support Union City's overly generous entitlements and "services" and the result is a city which needs almost as much aid from the state as it itself generates in order to balance its budget.

Very simply, a non-interventionist, fiscally responsible government less concerned with giving low-paying jobs to every resident claiming "need" in exchange for votes, and more concerned with keeping its remaining, productive businessowners and homeowners, will encourage residential development and bring in new waves of white-collar renters and owners. These are the type of people Union City needs, people who pay taxes, contribute to the community and who just might spark the next economic renewal, starting businesses at a fraction of the cost it takes across the river in Manhattan.

Instead, Brian Stack has resisted any new development. He is unwilling to bring in new blood which doesn't need free turkeys and has no inclination to take orders from a high-school educated Anglo.
Seemingly threatened by those who are smarter, more handsome or otherwise
"better" than he, Stack reminds one of the pretty girl in high school who makes sure her circle of friends contains only the comely, homely and lonely. This psychological dysfunction explains the pathological inferiority complex; Stack is content -- no, desperate -- to keep Union City full of people whom he considers his inferiors. (Not coincidentally, the
Irish-American Stack runs a city that is so heavily immigrant and Latino that Spanish is the co-equal language used in City Hall.). But the result for Union City is tragic; the city is held captive on a highway of mediocrity, dependent on handouts from the state and federal government to balance a budget that's bloated in order to run up huge electoral victories producing political capital which is not used wisely...or at all.
Stack has refused to use this political capital to attract the middle class
and young professionals whose pride of ownership and entrepreneurship could
revitalize Union City in the same way it has reenergized parts of New Jersey's Gold Coast (Hoboken, Jersey City, North Bergen) and Newark. Instead, he has made a foolish -- no, a tragic -- tradeoff. Unwilling (or afraid) to allow fresh blood to infuse his city, Union City has become dominated by elderly, poor Latinos, many of whom have never learned English and many of whom depend on government assistance for housing, food and medical care. Their multiple shackles of dependence make them ripe for exploitation by a political machine which demands votes and undying fealty in exchange for handouts and the promise of their continuance. But the Stack iron fist is never far from the velvet glove of Stack's pity, funded, of course, with other people's money.
Now who is supporting Stack's social co-dependent machine? The hapless,
shrinking homeowners and small businesses. One would write that they are forgotten, but that's not quite the case, with property taxes routinely in five figures for even the smallest home plots. The result is that Union City's real estate market remains a first-time-owner's market or a speculator's dream, dominated by multi-family, multi-story homes where the owners MIGHT live in the house but where every inch of rentable, subdividable space is leased out, by the month, for the week, on the books or off, legally or otherwise. Those wanting trade-up homes, with safe
streets, stable property taxes and a local government responsive to taxpayers must -- and do -- move to neighboring towns. But being near an institutionalized slum has its perils.


Eric Dixon



















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