Thursday, February 25, 2016

A solution for our expanding growth

By Avrohom Birnbaum- This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman USA. and on Matzav.com
Frum people are amazing at many things, but appreciating the importance of quality of life does not seem to be one of them...Existing Lakewood residents don’t want the wool pulled over their eyes with fancy language of “growth” and “smart growth.” They don’t want any growth until the issues are resolved.
-This is not a local Lakewood publication, but most readers have a close connection to Lakewood, NJ. In addition, this publication has been at the forefront of tackling difficult issues facing Klal Yisroel, and if the issue of how to properly channel Lakewood’s growth is not dealt with responsibly, it can, and sadly will, have a deleterious effect far beyond the borders of Lakewood.


As a Lakewood resident for nearly three decades, I have seen Lakewood grow from a small town built around Bais Medrash Govoah into a sprawling, Jewish metropolis with all that this entails.
No, I am not one of those who wax nostalgic and insist that we should go back to Old Lakewood. Life doesn’t stand still. As wonderful as Old Lakewood was, Klal Yisroel has grown exponentially since then, and that is a good thing. It is wonderful that Lakewood is growing. It is wonderful that so many bnei Torah are choosing to make their home in Lakewood.

However, as with every good thing, as thinking people and ehrliche Yidden, we must constantly look at ourselves, make a cheshbon hanefesh, and reassess old norms to see if they still apply.

Growth Without Infrastructure: A Recipe for Disaster

The working hypothesis has always been that Lakewood is growing, everyone wants to move to Lakewood, housing is still cheaper than in Brooklyn and most of Monsey, so let’s keep on building new developments and more houses.

Over the last ten years, the housing boom in Lakewood has exploded. New developments, both large and small, and new neighborhoods are springing up everywhere. Even in older neighborhoods, the demographic is changing. Houses are being torn down and multifamily dwellings are taking their place.

The growth is such that it has been difficult for the infrastructure of the town to keep up. Both the physical infrastructure and the spiritual infrastructure have not been able to keep up. The result? A drastic downturn in the quality of life for all residents.

Firstly, the physical infrastructure just can’t keep up. It is no secret that, in many ways, it is a sakanah to travel in Lakewood, both as a driver and as a pedestrian. While developments have sprung up like mushrooms after a rainfall, the streets have not developed at nearly the same pace. Walking in Lakewood on so many streets that do not have sidewalks and crossing the streets in Lakewood have become a sakanah. The congested roads make it downright dangerous. Aside from the danger, driving in Lakewood is also extremely taxing on the nerves. The main arteries in town are virtually always congested. This is especially true of the entire Route 9 South corridor and of County Line Road. Route 88, New Hampshire Avenue, and so many roads that lead to these arteries have also become difficult to navigate during many hours of the day. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours are lost collectively every year by residents just sitting in traffic.

Communal institutions, such as shuls, halls and stores, don’t have adequate parking, and taxpaying citizens are forced to live with this worsening quality of life.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Most towns in New Jersey have all kinds of ordinances to ensure that their infrastructure keeps up with local growth. By all means, if the infrastructure can handle it and the plans make sense, building should be approved, but when the situation is what we see today, granting more and more approvals for larger and larger developments is the height of negligence. How can we subject our citizenry to dangerous conditions, constant tension, and awful quality of life because more housing is needed or someone wants an approval to build? It is the job, perhaps even the sacred duty, of the elected and appointed officials to protect the interests of its citizenry.

In addition, it is no secret that the spiritual infrastructure also cannot keep up with Lakewood’s growth. The mosdos hachinuch are buckling under the pressure of trying to absorb all of the talmidim and talmidos who seek entry. The social problems emanating from this are well-known.

A Fairly Simple Solution

So what can be done? The answer is fairly simple. No approvals for new developments or new construction beyond replacement construction on existing properties should be granted until infrastructure improvements are made to accommodate the growth. When Route 9, County Line Road and other vital streets are improved in a way that ensures that the town is not in a perpetual traffic jam during so many hours of the day, then new developments can be approved. When sidewalks and proper lighting are installed so that pedestrians are not in a sakanah, then, by all means, let the town grow.

But until then, approvals are the height of folly. They increase the danger to all Lakewood residents and they ensure that the social issues that stem from the growth are exacerbated. They make all tax-paying citizens continue to scratch their heads and wonder, “Is Lakewood Township really representing me? Are the boards really there to protect the interests of Lakewood’s existing citizens?”

We must internalize the fact that quality of life does not have to be unbearable in a frum community. Frum people are amazing at many things, but appreciating the importance of quality of life does not seem to be one of them. Perhaps we have been in survival mode in golus for so long that we just focus on surviving, not on how we survive. But quality of life is a tremendously important issue. Our middos and our ability to properly interact with our fellow Jews are tested when we have to fight for every inch of our congested roads and every parking spot at our local shul or store.

When neighboring towns are alarmed by Lakewood’s encroachment of their borders, one cannot blame them. Yes, there is often an undercurrent of anti-Semitism with these types of things. That is tragically the metzius of our golus. But who can blame them? They drive through our town. They see the urban sprawl and the traffic conditions. Can anyone blame them for being alarmed?

It is the height of callousness, negligence and poor middos, and it shows little respect for the citizenry, when approvals are granted while there is no infrastructure in place to accommodate them. Existing Lakewood residents don’t want the wool pulled over their eyes with fancy language of “growth” and “smart growth.” They don’t want any growth until the issues are resolved.

The fact is that if new approvals for construction would not be given, the infrastructure issues would be addressed with greater alacrity and in a more comprehensive manner. Any person who denies that is deliberately insulting our intelligence.

A Side – Albeit Wonderful – Benefit

Another positive byproduct of curbing approvals until infrastructure improvements are actually implemented as opposed to promised is that Klal Yisroel may gain much as a result. It is no secret that housing prices in Lakewood have gone through the roof. Most houses, even attached ones, cost more than half a million dollars. If there would be no new approvals, even though in the immediate short-term prices would likely rise, bnei Torah would find new communities – either brand new communities or existing communities – to inhabit. This could ultimately make Lakewood more affordable as well.

In our long golus, it has always been prudent for us to diversify our assets. Just as Yaakov Avinu taught us that splitting up the camp was the way to survive, the fact that Lakewood contains so many of the spiritual assets of American Jewry is not necessarily the best thing. If new communities of bnei Torah, yeshivos and kollelim were to open on a large scale in other locales, it would improve Klal Yisroel and improve Lakewood both spiritually and materially.

Look at what transpired in Eretz Yisroel over the past two decades. When housing became prohibitively expensive in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim, new communities were established in Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Sefer, Beitar and numerous other places. Existing older communities such as Teveriah, Tzefas, Rechasim and Ofakim have also grown. The entire spiritual landscape of Eretz Yisroel has been enriched as a result.

This can happen in America, too. We can spread the spiritual wealth to new locales and we will all be the better for it.

A Call for a Transparent Airing of the Issues

Let me be clear. I understand that working on behalf of the tzibbur on various boards or in township positions is a tremendous act of altruism and true engagement in tzorchei tzibbur. I am also not privy to the various pressures facing the special individuals who give so much to the tzibbur by occupying these positions. I am certainly not impugning any individual, organization, mosad or government board.

On the contrary, if any board member or other official feels that the sentiments in this article are inaccurate and the problems should be solved differently, let them join the discussion and have the citizenry decide if their arguments hold water. I have been to my fair share of zoning and planning board hearings in Lakewood and I am somewhat familiar with the process, at least as it appears to a citizen observing the proceedings.

Meanwhile, however, present Lakewood residents and homeowners are facing quality of life issues and abuses that, to this writer’s mind, are incomparable to any other town in New Jersey.

I know that there will be plenty of people who say that the solution offered here is not the right one. On the contrary, the above words are not meant as a conversation-ender, but as a conversation-starter. There must be a mature and balanced conversation, with the views and interests of those truly suffering from the terrible quality of life that has resulted being presented. The citizens are not a mere nuisance that one must get around in order to further this plan or that plan. They are the backbone of the town. They are the taxpayers.

One thing is clear. Priority must be given to those citizens already in Lakewood. It is the most basic requirement of any governing body.

My friends, let the productive conversation on this important topic start. We will all be the better for it.

38 comments:

  1. I recall that last year Newark was selling many properties in the South Central and West Wards for $1,000 to those that would improve the property and live there for five years. This is a great opportunity to find and build new communities.

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  2. There are many towns nearby that askanim or investors are trying to get people to move to with as of yet no luck. Egg Harbor, Vineland, Browns Mill etc. are all viable options, and one or more of them probably will eventually happen when prices keep on going higher. One thing is for sure though, there will never be a freeze on building approvals in lakewood, as good as it might sound it's not happening.

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  3. many people would move to the above mentioned places if it was being done privately not by these so called ASSkunim who have a reputation of only bearing themselves in mind

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    1. Who exactly is stopping you or other private people from buying the land in these places and selling houses ?

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  4. Please note the following. The price of a hypothetical 500,000 to 600,000 house in Lakewood is composed of 4 factors. Land ,site improvements to make the roads and sewers ,cost of building the actual house ,and the builders profit .The cost of the site improvements, building the house and the builders profit are the same or more in Egg Harbor ,Browns Mills or Vineland as they are in Lakewood. Tue only savings will be on the actual raw land cost. Lets even say that you could save 125000 per lot by moving out to those areas. And thats a big if. At todays interest rates that is a savings of less than 600 dollars a month . You will not have a basement rental worth 1000 a month and both the husband and wife will have to spend a few hundred dollars per month in costs to commute to jobs in Lakewood or further. So the same house might he 125,000 cheaper but with the commuting and lack of basement rental your costs of ownership will be much higher than in Lakewood.Even if you make the case that on a single family house, not duplex or townhouse,you could save 250000 on the raw land ,that is still only a 1200 monthly savings ,still less than the basement rental and commuting costs. So its not as rosy as it looks .

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    1. In Browns Mill there are actual houses for sale, (over 350 actually) not land, and they range in price from 150k (small 3 br) to 250k (larger 4br). Therefore the savings would be astronomical, there are no basement rentals but property taxes would be less than half of lakewood.

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    2. You are not comparing applesto apples. I can guarantee you that the 250k house in Browns Mills isn't anything like the new construction 5 bedroom 4 bath duplex or house with 3 bedroom finished basement in Lakewood.I agree that it would be nice if everybody would be happy with smaller older simpler houses ,but since today every yeshivaman wants a 5 bedroom 4 bath new construction eith s finidhed 3 bedroom 2 bath basement,its only fair to compare what that type of new construction would cost in Browns Mills. Also I am sure there aren't many hundreds or thousands of those houses available so if a sizable kehila is to develop, you will need to build new houses and then the costs would be the same as Lakewood except for the cheaper raw land. And even the land will skyrocket once a few hundred peopke move in.

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    3. Of course they are much smaller, however many people simply can not afford a down payment or monthly payments on a 450k house in lakewood, and are therefore looking into Browns Mill. There are currently over 350 houses for sale there (go to zillow or any other website and see for yourself) and they have a total of over 1400 homes there, so there is deff. Room for a sizable size kehila to develop (not as big as lakewood obviously, which many people might consider a mailah not a chisaron).

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    4. A basement rental barely covers lakewood taxes, if your property taxes are half the amount not having a basement isn't too bad.

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    5. Same duplex in Browns Mills you save 600 a month in mortgage. Save another 450 a month in taxes. Total savings 1050 a month. Loss of basement rent is 1000. Cost to commute to work is 250 a month for each husband and wife. You do the math .save 1050 to lose 1500.

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    6. Duplex in Lakewood = 515k
      Monthly mortgage = approx $1,950
      Monthly taxes = approx 1,000
      Basement rental = 1,000
      Approx total monthly cost $1,950

      House in Browns Mill = 225k
      Monthly mortgage = $690
      Monthly taxes = approx $400
      Approx total monthly cost = $1,090

      That's a difference of 1,000 per month including the loss of basement. Your estimation of cost of commute is quite high, (it's approx 25 miles from Lakewood). However most importantly many people just don't have 100k for a down payment so Lakewood is not an option, no matter how "kedai" it is, and this place (or somewhere else) might be.

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    7. You are not reading. I was compating the cost of a dupplex in Lakewood with the cost of a similar duplex in Browns mills. You are comparing the cost of a brand new big duplex in Lakewood to the cost of a small 3 bedroom older house in Browns Mills. That is not an intellectually honest comparison. The same older small 3 bedroom house on the outskirts of Lakewood can be bought for much,les than 515 probably 375 .That is not a house that much of the buyers in Lakewood are interested in buying.

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    8. You are not reading, I understand that a small house in BM is not the same as a brand new duplex in Lakewood, however people can't afford the duplexes in Lakewood and would therefore consider BM. Obviously there are many people who can afford it (or think they can) and will continue buying Lakewood houses, but for anybody else Lakewood is no longer an option and Browns Mill might be even though the houses are (gasp) smaller. Furthermore I agree a better comparison would be the 375 house in lakewood that is smaller than a duplex and no basement to a 225 house in Browns Mill. Furthermore in Lakewood one can't get a back yard (for 500k) while in Browns Mill, the houses are single family with lots ranging from 7,000 to 20,000 sq ft. Lastly not every house there is older, I saw a few listings with houses built in the last 3 years, that were over 2300 sq ft not including garage and basement going for approx 250k.

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    9. Nobody is saying thst Browns Mills is not an option for some. But the original poster made it sound like you can get the same house there for so much lesd and I was pointing out that the same house would be maybe 600 less on mortgage and 450 less on taxes ,which would actually be more expensive afte rno basements rental and commuting costs.i agree we should ideally live like we once did in smaller houses but today 2300 sq ft is even smaller than a townhouse of 2650 sq ft which is available in Lakewood for 430000 including a finished basement, so again the savings are not so big. Mist people with 7 to 10 kids are not going to be excited wbout wn older 2300 sq ft house with a kitchen not designed for a kosher kitchen. You sre also not including the costs to transport yoyr kids to school in Lakewood because the first 5 to 7 years thete will not be enough schools in Browns Mills. Obviously once the Lakewood prices rise to Boro Park levels then the equation will change.

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  5. The AUTHOR'S comment about frum people not understanding the importance of quality of life is stupid, degrading and insulting to the general community. The power of the pen doesn't make one smarter or give one a right to paint brush an entire community based on the actions of a few.

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    1. Don't blame the author. When quality of life is deteriorating rapidly, and the same officials keep getting elected, that is the superficial conclusion one would draw.

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  6. I think we are seeing the beginning of a revolution in lkwd people are starting to finally wake up. By the way after they finish building all of the current and future developments planned for Cross Str area, it will make all of the current traffic problems look like childrens play ( By the way R' Birnbaum who did you vote for the past 10yrs)

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  7. An example today, It took me 7 minutes to go from N.Lake Dr./Rt. 9 south to Rt. 70 at 7 this morning. The return trip at 4 this afternoon took 30 minutes. Do the math, oh wise leaders

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  8. Wow what a well written and great article
    Who wrote this ?
    Bottom line these investors care about one thing and one thing only their own pocket book and that's why the regular guy the underdog the poor get completely ignored
    They will throw a few hundred bucks here and there with maeser for tomchai Shabbos and the like
    A few photo ops at the local dinners along with some parlor meetings
    But they're forgetting they really and truly are making life uncomfortable on a daily basis and they both the investors and the leaders who allow this are at fault
    I hope the elected officials read this maybe mail it to the do they should know how we the people truly feel

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  9. Yoy are forgetting one thing. The only reason our hoysing prices are not rising to Boro Park levels is because there is new supply. If we limited new approvals ,the prices of hoysing would skyrocket to crazy levels because of lack of supply. So then really nobody besides the rich New Yorkers coyod afford it. That is also not a good situation.

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    1. What is so bad about not just building houses but also roads

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    2. Most of the roads that are the issue are County or State ( rt 9 ) So the township cant really fix this by itself

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    3. They allowed the dev to build right up to the edge making the rds to expensive to widen

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    4. For example the houses going up on Rena lane as we speak

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  10. Many people are willing to put up with the traffic in order to have their married kids be able to live with them in Lakewood . Obviously everybody is entitled to their opinion and those that absolutely cant stand the traffic should definitely take advatage of the high prices and sell their houses for a huge profit and move to Browns Mills or Egg Harbor or Vineland or Detroit or Cleveland .

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  11. If the author had 7 married kids who need to buy a house and want to live in Lakewood near their parents maybe he would see things differently . There are always 2 sides and opinions to the story .

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    1. He actually has married kids

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    2. Maybe he doesnt care as much that they live near him in Lakewood. Some people care and some dont.

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    3. Most people's kids may live in Lakewood but no where near them......

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    4. Near means anywhere in Lakewood, not out of town

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  12. If you move to Browns Mills and it succeeds ,it will eventualy become choked like Lakewood . If you want to keep it at 500 families ,be prepared to spend 12,000 on tuition like in out of town schools . There are no economies of scale if you have a school of 150 kids and your tuitions will reflect that . So there will be financial tradeoffs for everything .

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  13. BUILD MORE ROADS. NEW ONES THAT ARE NOT COUNTY OR STATE

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  14. I just know one thing. With all the traffic it getting harder to take my kids and pick them up from the babysitter and it is cutting into my nap time

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    1. Browns Mills is in the pinelands and there is not much room to grow. So if you like living in a small town ,by all means move there. But you are either going to transport your kids to Lakewood schools ,if you can get in as an out of towner ,or you will pay 12000 tuition because you will have small schools like out of town

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  15. So there we have it. If you nerd your nap time or dont care about your grandchildren living near you ,then mive to Browns Mills. If not stay in Lakewood and put up with the traffic hassles. There are great choices for everybody

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