Sad as it may be, 9/11 put Hudson County on the map – literally, if you believe Dan Frohwirth, real estate director for Jersey City’s Economic Development Corporation. He says that the tragedy in lower Manhattan attracted some well-heeled New Yorkers to Hudson County.
Frohwirth recalls a Goldman Sachs executive who, prior to 9/11, tried to get his boss to move some of the company’s offices to Jersey City’s Exchange Place. The boss, who had a lower Manhattan corner office with an unobstructed view of the Garden State, complained, “I don’t even know where Jersey City is!”
The company did eventually move some offices to a new builsing it constructed at Exchange Place.
“A lot of New Yorkers had no idea what was over here,” Frohwirth said. “They didn’t know where Jersey City was. They didn’t know where Hoboken was. They didn’t know where Hudson County was.”
Immediately after 9/11, however, Frohwirth notes, New Yorkers were introduced to Hudson County – some by TV news, others when their companies temporarily relocated out of lower Manhattan.
The county’s proximity to Manhattan had already lured young professionals and artists since the 1980s, increasing condominium construction and forcing families out of Hoboken. Now, other towns are affected, with many turning into havens for professionals who are displacing low-income workers and large families countywide.
Frohwirth believes that many of the workers who came after 9/11 are part of the burgeoning wave of middle and upper middle class condo-dwellers who have filled luxury high rise developments dotting the county’s waterfront in West New York, Jersey City, Hoboken, and Weehawken.
Of course, in towns like Jersey City, Secaucus, Union City, West New York, and North Bergen, Latino and Asian immigrants have changed the scene as well.
Affordable housing crunch
Change, of course, does not come without pain. As of the 2000 Census, at least 15 percent of the county’s population still lives in poverty. Many of these residents are either trapped in public housing or forced to leave a county where apartments rent for thousands of dollars per month.
According to New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based nonprofit research organization that studies the impact of development and advocates “smart growth,” the state is facing a serious affordable housing crisis. The organization claims that the areas in the state that are experiencing the most job growth and redevelopment, specifically in Hudson County, are the same ones that have a shortage of housing for entry-level professionals, recent college grads, and low-income workers. New Jersey residents spend a median of 21.8 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments, according to research done by New Jersey Future.
Throughout Hudson County the affordable housing debate has become a heated issue, but perhaps nowhere is it hotter than in Secaucus. The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission and the state Council on Affordable Housing are pushing for more affordable housing in the town while local elected leaders argue that Secaucus has enough already.
Many housing advocates believe that the cost of living in Hudson County is the main reason that the county experienced a 1.3 percent population dip between 2000 and 2006.
Hudson County’s loss may well be Essex County’s gain; the median household income in Newark – a city that is undergoing its own slow renaissance – rose by 8.2 percent between 1999 and 2006. Some city planners and demographers believe Newark may be inheriting former Hoboken and Jersey City residents who have been priced out of the Hudson County housing market.
‘Untapped sleeping giant’
Although the county’s Latino population is holding steady at 41 percent, the population’s ethnic make up is changing and Hispanic neighborhoods are being affected by the rapid gentrification.
“As far as Jersey City goes, people are still here, but they’re more dispersed,” said former Ward E City Councilman Junior Maldonado. Now executive director of the Hudson County Transportation Management Association, Maldonado, who lost his downtown council seat in 2005 to white candidate Steven Fulop, believes demographic changes in his waterfront section of Jersey City played a role in his defeat.
“I definitely think that my voters, voters who supported me when I ran for the council the first time, had moved into other districts, like the Heights, when I ran for re-election,” Maldonado stated.
Maldonado and Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise agreed that similar trends buoyed Dawn Zimmer’s win over Christopher Campos in Hoboken’s 4th Ward City council race last year. Despite the success of Fulop and Zimmer, however, DeGise said, “Newcomers to Hudson County aren’t really involved in local politics. I call them the great untapped sleeping giant.”
Voter turnout among newcomers hovers at 28 to 30 percent, according to Francis Moran, professor of political science at New Jersey City University who has studied population and voting trends in the county.
DeGise added that newcomers to the county are more interested in national politics. “They’ll vote in presidential elections. But they aren’t interested in school board races, city council races. If you ask them who their mayor is they’ll probably say, ‘Bloomberg,'” he joked, referring to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Sometimes the newcomers aren’t affected by the major hot-button issues. They may not be involved politically on the local level because they aren’t angry about anything,” DeGise noted. “That’s usually the way it goes. People get angry about something, then they get involved. We may not see them truly enter the political process locally until they’re angry about something.”
Should the “untapped sleeping giant” ever awaken, it could begin to reshape county politics in some very interesting ways. Moran envisions a Hudson County in 10 or 15 years in which the Democratic Party, which wins most elections currently, faces meaningful competition from Republican and Independent challengers.
“The people coming into the county are more likely to be younger, rather than older. And the younger folks are much more conservative than a lot of the older folks,” Moran observed.
Hudson County 2010 and beyond
It remains to be seen what further impact changing demographics in the county will have on Latino political power. Union City, responsible for the rise of Sen. Robert Menendez, has long been the heart of Hispanic influence in the county and state and will likely continue to be so for the next decade. Latinos, however, may face new challenges in their bid to get elected in other towns where their numbers are being diluted by new residents.
As Latinos look to shore up their political power, it remains to be seen if the county’s sizable Asian population will find its own political voice. The county had an estimated 64,379 Asians living here in 2005, a 13 percent increase over 2000. Most of this population, 44,601 people, lived in Jersey City. However, Asians are gaining strength in other parts of the county.
If current predictions hold, Secaucus, the most suburban of the county’s townships and perceived to be one with the fewest minorities, may actually see its white population drop below 50 percent after the 2010 census. This development, if it happens, will be contingent upon the current wave of South Asian immigrants moving to Secaucus at their current pace.
“Statistically, I don’t know if we are as diverse as New York City,” DeGise said. “But we are certainly a very diverse county, and that diversity is always changing. As new people come here, I think you find that many of them stay and put down long-term or permanent roots. Eventually people who are new to the county, whether you’re talking about someone from India, or the Dominical Republic or New York, they all want to make their presence felt and have an impact in Hudson County.”
Families squeezed out
Meanwhile, New Jersey Future and other housing advocates argue that condominium overdevelopment has been used by politicians as an urban planning strategy to push families with school-age children away.
“Strange as it may sound, some elected leaders see families with children as a liability because kids have to be educated and use the public education system,” said Paul Bellan-Boyer, chairman of the New Jersey Regional Coalition’s Housing Task Force. “The public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, specifically property tax dollars, and there is tremendous pressure to keep property taxes down.”
The lack of family homes may give some residents fewer options to stay in Hudson County, although research indicates that families try to stay as long as they can.
“The county definitely has an image of people being in and out: People move in, they start having kids, then they move out to the suburbs,” said Moran. However, “We did a survey back in January [of Hudson County residents] and one question we asked was how long people have been here, and most people who responded had been here 10 years or more. So, the population wasn’t quite as transient as we thought.”
Moran points to another poll he did that found that residents “overwhelmingly” favored the development of single family homes in the county, underscoring that people here would rather stay here than leave.
Businesses catering to new clientele
“Obviously, when you have people with more money moving in, there’s more of a demand for higher end restaurants,” said Dan Frohwirth of Jersey City last week. “Places like City Vino, that wine bar on Hudson Street, and Ox on Newark Avenue (both in Jersey City) are a response to Yuppies moving into the neighborhood.”
“Then you have places like the West End Hotel,” he continued. “People who are moving into these one- and two-bedroom condos have people coming in for a weekend and they need a place to put them up. So that’s a response to the increased high-end residential market that we have now and the needs of the residents who have moved in.”
Frohwirth added that two high-end steak houses are expected to open in Jersey City within the next year, and Whole Foods Market is scouting a location. – EAW