OCEAN GROVE — The three-story home, equipped with six bedrooms and three bathrooms, sits on Ocean Pathway in Ocean Grove, just a quick walk away from the beach.
The home sold in December 2008 for $135,000. Earlier this year, the property was listed at $1.395 million — a 933 percent increase from its last sale price.
The stark rise in value of this property in Ocean Grove, a community less than a half-mile in total area within Neptune Township, is a snapshot of the improving housing market there, and how the millions poured into neighboring Asbury Park in recent years has now traveled across Wesley Lake, the separating body of the two communities.
But it’s a snapshot, too, of the power of an invested community — in this case, New Jersey’s small, but increasingly visible gay community — to transform real estate markets, even in a shorefront village with a history as one of New Jersey’s most conservative and religious communities.
“In the 80s or 90s, there was just a lot of run down properties here,” says Ray Huizenga, who founded Ocean Grove Realty, now Century 21 Coastal Realtors, in 1979. “Ocean Grove is less than a square mile. You couldn’t say there is a blighted street now.”
The market is “at the highest it has been in years,” with property values rising in the community of 3,000 residents, adds Lisa English, a real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty.
Part of the reason for the community’s burgeoning, experts say, is simple spillover. For years, Ocean Grove residents have been observing the constant development in Asbury Park. In August 2015, iStar, a real estate investment company, announced a multi-billion dollar redevelopment plan of Asbury Park’s waterfront, which will add 2,100 homes, 300 hotel rooms and various other mixed-use developments.
Yet for both year-round residents and weekenders from New York City or Philadelphia, Ocean Grove offers a comparative peacefulness. It’s a a dry town with an uncommercialized beachfront. But it’s also just a few minutes drive into the lively Asbury Park downtown, which is packed with bars, restaurants and music venues.
“It’s the quaintness, cuteness,” English says of Ocean Grove’s appeal. “It has history and a charm.”
But, “Asbury Park is its selling point,” she says.
Kelsey Kloza, 29, lived in Asbury Park for three years before the homeowner she was renting from sold the home. She says she saw the “renaissance” in Asbury Park materialize in those three years.
“It was just inevitable Ocean Grove and surrounding areas would take advantage of it,” she says. Kloza and two friends relocated to Ocean Grove last summer.
The other key component of the area’s transformation? Many locals point to an influx of gay residents over the past three decades. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Ocean Grove now has the most same-sex couples per 1,000 households (40.16) in the state.
Harriet Bernstein said the “gay-friendly” culture in Asbury Park and Ocean Grove “absolutely led to me buying here” 19 years ago.
The transformation echoes one that has taken place in neighborhoods around the country, from New York City’s Chelsea to Los Angeles’s West Hollywood — what was once borderline seedy is now borderline unaffordable.
“The area was not doing well,” says Luisa Paster, Bernstein’s wife. “But a lot of gay people moved in and rehabbed the homes and opened businesses.”
“There were big old Victorian houses in a small town,” Bernstein adds. “For the gay community, with no children, schools were not a concern. You could buy homes for very cheap. It appealed to gay people. That is why it started.”
The irony of all this, of course, is glaring. Ocean Grove is a traditionally staunch Methodist community — not exactly where you’d expect to see gay people flocking. When you enter town, one of the first things you see is a sign that says, “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore.”
Bernstein and Paster say that Ocean Grove has been a very welcoming place for the LGBTQ community, though Paster notes that “every once in awhile there is an eruption,” a clashing of values between the old guard and the newer, often more liberal, newer residents.
Like, when a state judge ruled Bernstein and Paster were discriminated against when the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a community ministry association, denied the couple use of its boardwalk pavilion for their civil union ceremony in 2007. Or when, in 2012, the meeting association invited former child-actor Kirk Cameron, who has called homosexuality “unnatural,” to make a public appearance in the community.
In each incident, though, hundreds of residents, gay and straight, have rallied together to support the inclusiveness of Ocean Grove that Bernstein said she has felt in her day-to-day life for the last 19 years.
“The population has changed since 1998,” Bernstein says.
And the market has also remained strong despite increased property taxes. In 2014, Neptune Township underwent a town-wide property revaluation, including Ocean Grove. The average residential property tax bill in Ocean Grove is now $6,176, compared to Asbury Park’s average of $5,150. Since 2014, property values have increased by more than 25 percent, while residents average property taxes have increased by 5 percent in Neptune Township. (During that same time period, average property taxes rose by 4.8 percent throughout the state to $8,549.)
As for whether Ocean Grove might soon be facing some of the same criticisms that Asbury Park has encountered in recent years — that it’s become too expensive and drifted away from its roots as an affordable enclave — there are two schools of thought.
On one hand, Ocean Grove may already warrant such belief; there is surprisingly little difference in prices between the communities. Separated by just a 15-minute walk, a six-bedroom, five-and-half-bathroom home in Ocean Grove is currently on sale for $799,000, while a single-family four-bedroom and five-and-half bathroom Asbury Park home is currently on sale for $729,000. Both homes are a few blocks from the beach.
On the other hand, residents and real estate agents say that the town still boasts a modesty and peacefulness that sets it apart from its neighbor.
“Ocean Grove has done a great job piggy backing off of Asbury Park, but not getting lost within that,” English says. “The community has not gotten away from what they are.”