Opinion—Embrace the Box: Affordable Housing and Learning to love the Bayonne Box

By Patrick Lamson-Hall and Nuria Forques Puigcerver

It’s no secret that Newark has cheaper housing than the rest of the New York City metropolitan area. According to Zillow, the median home price in the first three months of 2022 was $408,000, about half Brooklyn’s $768,000. The median rent in Newark is $1357 against $2,043 in Yonkers or $1,892 in Perth Amboy. While housing may not always feel cheap in Newark, it is. And as cities like New York struggle to achieve its YIMBY aspirations, Newark has already mastered the next generation of affordable housing.

Savvy realtors have long padded their practices by periodically declaring a Newark Renaissance—the first Newark Renaissance was proclaimed in 1947—but for three generations, people have moved to Newark whenever they start to feel that the rent is too damned high. Newark’s reputation as an unsafe and highly polluted city has traditionally kept demand low, and white and middle-class flight meant that the supply was high for many years.

Now Newark’s reputation is changing, and the city is seeing price increases as new construction fails to keep up with population growth. Despite what appears to be a booming construction market, Newark added only 4,000 homes between 2010 and 2020—a time when the population grew by 34,409. Low-income and lifelong residents compete for a limited number of housing units against (according to census figures) new working class and lower-middle class residents with more education and higher incomes.

Most private and unsubsidized housing stock in Newark was built between 1900 and 1940, similar to Brooklyn or Manhattan, where around 50% was constructed before World War 2. Newarkers sometimes say that their city was made for 500,000 people, a far cry from the 310,000 who live there today. The bottom line figure of total population matters a lot for supporting local businesses and keeping neighborhoods vibrant, but the gap between the peak and the current population doesn’t mean that there are a lot of empty apartments sitting around.

Most “extra”’ housing has been eaten up by the change in household size in the United States (and Newark), which fell from 3.3 to 2.5 since 1960. Every household requires a home; when families get smaller, the same number of people need more houses. 310,000 people in 2020 need the same number of housing units as 409,000 people needed in 1960.

Many units were also burned, left to rot by absentee landlords, or destroyed in city-sponsored urban renewal campaigns. Most of the lost units were built before 1930. Newark today has about 100,000 housing units against 134,500 in 1960, 79% of which had been built before 1930. Today 61.2% of the housing stock was built before 1960, and only 28.3% before 1940.

The most notable thing about housing in Newark isn’t the old housing stock. It’s the little-reported fact that Newark—almost uniquely among cities in the New York metro area—can build decent new housing within a reasonable commute of the city center at a price that working families can afford.

For comparison, according to the MTA subway timetable (yes, it exists), if you get on the Q-train at Herald Square and ride for 36 minutes, you can reach Kings Highway in Brooklyn. $300,000 in that neighborhood will fetch you a 1-bedroom co-op apartment on the third floor of a building built in 1941, with laundry in the basement.

A 19-minute train ride in the other direction will put you in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood. Walk south or east for 15 minutes, and suddenly, the same $300k can cover the cost of a new 3-bedroom apartment with a washer and a dryer, a dishwasher, and parking, all built by a local developer on a vacant or redeveloped lot in an urban neighborhood.

Without meaning to, Newark has stumbled on the holy grail of affordable housing—a world in which small developers are building affordable infill housing without taxpayer subsidies outside a major coastal metropolis. New housing in Newark is so cheap, it has more in common with Houston, Texas, than it does with Hoboken.

The catch is this: Newark’s new housing comes in the form of the Bayonne box, a type of housing that has been raked over the coals from Jersey City to Atlantic Highlands. Bayonne boxes are typically two or three-family buildings on small lots. Smaller home builders make them, often one or two at a time. They generally feature tacky and ornate designs, obnoxious and sidewalk-destroying curb cuts, street-level garages, cheap vinyl siding, and stick construction. They scream ‘cost cutting,’ which is exactly what makes them affordable. Though the inhabitants often love them, neighbors usually hate them and fear what they will do to property values

These simple structures often replace older single-family houses or dilapidated two and three-family homes, many of which were also originally built for the lowest possible cost. More commonly, they’re built on land that is already vacant, whether due to arson, lack of maintenance, abandonment, or unrealized urban renewal. They fill in gaps on blighted blocks and bring life back into neighborhoods. They are homes for families.

Zoning rules limit the supply of buildable lots for these units, but Newark could easily increase the supply and make the new homes cheaper with a couple of tweaks. Simply lowering the minimum plot size for a new 3-family home from 3,500 square feet to 2,500 square feet and allowing new buildings to touch would open up vastly more space for these new and affordable homes while maintaining a familiar neighborhood character.

Bayonne boxes are also precisely the kind of housing that stabilizes neighborhoods. Right now, the buildings are built on spec and sold to owner-occupiers who live in one unit and rent out the others. This kind of arrangement incentivizes investment in the property, unlike the absentee-owned units that make up the majority of housing in many Newark neighborhoods. It also creates stability, with owners benefiting from supplemental income that makes them much less likely to go into foreclosure.

Another model that would make the units even more accessible and is, at yet, untried would be to allow developers to sell the units individually. The building could be managed as a condominium or a small cooperative association. The developer would make the same profit, and three times as many families would have the opportunity for home ownership. It only requires the introduction of a structure.

In that scenario, a family with two adults working full-time for the median hourly wage of $17.79 could afford a 3-bedroom apartment, especially with FHA loans requiring a minimal down payment. If Newark legalized this housing city-wide, the Mayor could easily achieve his goal of adding 3,000 new market-rate housing units in the next term.

If developers were allowed to turn just 10% of the single-family homes in the city into Bayonne boxes, it would produce 3,260 new homes. Allowing all of the abandoned city-owned properties in Newark to be converted could create 1,500 more homes. The zoning changes mentioned earlier could add a further 6,700 homes, for a total of 11,460 new homes through council actions alone.  

Eleven thousand four hundred sixty homes may not seem like much, but they could house about 28,500 people, 83% of the total population increase from 2010 to 2020. If Newark embraced the Bayonne box, it could become a model for the region, sparking other towns and cities to make similar changes and showing that infill housing development can work in New York and New Jersey.

City leaders could make the “box” more appealing by removing the ground floor garage requirement in areas within a 15-minute walk of a mass transit station. That space could be another housing unit, a store, barbershop or café. Making the garage flexible would create more opportunities for small business owners and produce a more engaging landscape for pedestrians while improving the appearance of the neighborhood and creating safer and more accessible sidewalks.  

Embracing the “box” is also a winning strategy for the environment. Currently, most new housing is on the outer fringe of the New York metro area. It consists of single-family homes on oversized lots. People are obligated to drive to work or the grocery store. Infill development lets people live closer to transit and restores walkable neighborhoods in areas with a classic urban fabric that can support density.

Unfortunately, opposition to Bayonne boxes (often on aesthetic grounds) means that many neighborhoods will fight to prohibit their development, preferring to hold out for fancier but more restricted subsidized housing complexes or comparatively attractive G+5 housing for singles and couples. Such pickiness may not have done much damage when big developers were churning out tract houses in Morris and Somerset County, but today it’s a recipe for displacement and gentrification.

The truth is, Bayonne boxes are the perfect home for this moment. They are cheap and quick to build, favoring small developers who hire locally and keep money in the local community. And they’re priced within reach of many working people. Allowing more Bayonne boxes will let people stay in the neighborhoods they grew up in.

Building working-class and middle-class housing takes the pressure off the limited supply of subsidized affordable units and keeps communities together. If Newark wants to get serious about affordable housing, Bayonne boxes would be low-hanging fruit. It is even theoretically possible to make them look a little better, but we may not want to—their terrible aesthetics make Bayonne boxes nearly gentrification-proof.

Patrick Lamson-Hall and Nuria Forques Puigcerver are the husband-and-wife team behind Fitted Projects, a forward-thinking international urban design and planning firm based in Newark, NJ. 

Featured photo by The Newarker staff