Lack of affordable housing outside of Camden to blame for poverty, experts say

Charley Shambry, one of the many city residents featured in my "Inquirer Special Report" on Camden's poverty, can't walk with his 2-year-old niece and nephew farther than a block in his Bergen Square neighborhood without running into a prominent drug sect.

"I don't want them getting near that," he told me last fall as I chatted with him in the kitchen of his Bergen Square home. When his 15-year-old twins get home, they also are not allowed to hang outside.

"It's horrible," he says of the violence in Camden.

Why doesn't he move? The simple answer is that he can't afford to move. Unemployed and unskilled, he does odd jobs here and there but is still below the $17,916 a year national poverty threshold for a household of three.

But as Howard Gillette, Rutgers-Camden professor and author of Camden After the Fall, points out in a response post to my story, Shambry and others like him don’t move in part because of lack of affordable housing elsewhere.

"Instead of assuming people will leave if they can, we should be asking why they don't leave if they want to," Gillette says on his website as a response to my article. "The answer is pretty simple: lack of affordable housing in the region. If people are forced to stay in Camden, it's most often because that is where they find the most affordable place to live."

This doesn't come as complete surprise. Most of the poverty experts I spoke with for this story talked about the issue of concentrated poverty in places like Camden.

Gillette's colleague, Rutgers-Camden public policy professor Paul Jargowsky, said exclusionary zoning is the problem and changes should be made so other municipalities in Camden County take in more affordable housing projects.

Jargowsky mentioned London as an example of a city "comprised of many little towns and every one of them has substantial," affordable housing projects.

Msgr. Michael Doyle, the longtime Camden advocate priest who was also featured in my article, couldn't agree more.

"Camden is a dumping ground for the poor," Doyle told me in December. "Every town should take a percentage of the poor."

Some of Shambry's own siblings have tried to move out of Camden. But one of his sisters who moved out to Pine Hill a couple years ago was looking to return.

"She can't afford it so she's coming back," Shambry told me.

As Gillette references in his post, homes are affordable in Camden because the living conditions are undesirable. The situation tends to stay the same, Gillette says, because anyone who moves out is replaced by someone who needs a low-cost housing option.

“Deconcentration of poverty can't happen overnight, and there's no will for it, aside from social activists and a few academics like myself,” Gillette later explained to me.

Jargowsky will be hosting a poverty conference “The Challenge of Camden, The Challenge for America” on April 22. More details to come.