For the past few decades, government has tried to meet the demand for affordable urban housing through a variety of agencies and heavy subsidies. For the most part, these efforts have been a disaster, resulting in substandard buildings, blighted neighborhoods, acute crime and safety problems and a fleeing middle class.

Why have these approaches so often ended in failure? For one thing, conventional affordable housing efforts have almost always dealt with subsidized rental programs, which lack permanence and do little to instill the pride of ownership. For another, the housing has almost always been located in high-density, high-rise buildings that produce overcrowded living conditions, difficult-to-handle security problems and an inability to provide adequate services.

What's more, the subsidies themselves are frequently viewed as handouts by the recipients, further demeaning their lifestyle experience and creating a loss of dignity and a lack of respect for property. No wonder so many subsidized housing complexes today lie vacant and in disrepair, the victims of neglect, apathy and frustration on the part of both sponsoring agencies and residents.

In some cases, particularly deteriorated buildings have been closed and demolished by cities as part of new programs to revitalize their inner wards. But too often, this only results in vacant, weed-clogged lots and junkyards.

Bold initiative Now, a new and imaginative approach promises to restore both affordable housing complexes and the inner-city neighborhoods in which they exist through a simple precept: homeownership. Successfully employed in recent years in pockets of deterioration throughout New York City, the practice of replacing high-rise, high-density subsidized rental housing with low-rise, low-density, market-rate, for-sale housing is now being adopted by several New Jersey communities as well.

In June, AFC Realty Capital, as a partner in Century Holdings LLC, was designated by the City of Plainfield to develop approximately 250 one- and two-family housing units over the next four years. One month later, a similar venture was approved by Newark for approximately 400 two-family homes in the city's South Ward.

Both locations are considered to be extremely difficult neighborhoods. The vacant lots and abandoned buildings that pockmark the streets of Plainfield are a result of problems experienced by the city for the past four decades. Hurt by an exodus of residents and businesses in the 1960s, it has been struggling to regain its health ever since.

Newark's South Ward is, if possible, even more precarious. Formerly the site of towering subsidized rental buildings and a substandard, deteriorated infrastructure, the area also has experienced widespread abandonment, leaving behind boarded-up stores, burned-out residential blocks and widespread pockets of high crime levels.

Both cities have organized true private-public partnerships to produce housing to bring the middle class back. Since the cities have literally taken back acres of their downtown districts, they are able to sell lots to the partnerships that we are a part of at very low costs.

Measurable benefits County grants greatly facilitate our own construction financing. And a modular building system enables us to put up homes quickly, producing considerable savings on interest and other financial costs.

All of these benefits are passed along to buyers to keep the price of the homes at affordable levels. In Newark, for example, we are able to sell two-family homes with more than 2,800 sq. ft. of space for as little as $180,000. Residences in Plainfield sell even lower. And to make the process of homeownership still easier, we have arranged for attractive mortgages equal to 95% to 100% of the purchase price and with low down payments.

Reaction in both locations has been extremely satisfying. Buyers are imbued with a sense of dignity and self-esteem that only homeownership can provide. Also, the price of the units in Plainfield includes a personal computer to help children become computer literate.

But this kind of program accomplishes a lot more than merely providing a decent, affordable place to live. Non-income-producing property is being returned to the tax rolls. The quality of life is improved for entire neighborhoods as existing property owners are prompted to rehabilitate their buildings and new investment arrives.

Of equal significance, retailers are persuaded to once again locate in these urban districts, an essential requirement for re-establishing a long-lasting, viable local infrastructure. The Plainfield and Newark efforts are certainly worthy of close study as these programs develop. They are apt examples for other cities with similar housing problems to emulate.