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The Scourge of Abandoned Properties​

by Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and author of The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s paper “The Empty House Next Door.”

There are millions of abandoned properties in America, and they’re a symptom of an economy and a housing market which is comfortable with the idea of leaving large parts of America behind. They are mostly found in the hearts of older cities, like Cleveland or Detroit, or in rural areas, like Appalachia or the Plains states.

As I wrote in my book, “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America,” at the same time as some areas in cities like St. Louis or Chicago are gentrifying, in far more areas struggling working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, are falling behind. As a result, in the last two decades, more and more abandoned properties have begun to pop up in not only in older cities, but often in many of the inner-ring 1950s suburbs that surround them.

There are sections of American cities where the majority of parcels are either vacant buildings or vacant lots, a condition I’ve termed hypervacancy.

Though properties that owners have literally walked away from are common in those areas, most are invisible to people who live in other parts of the country. They are a powerful symbol of the economic, racial, and spatial polarization of 21st century America.

Abandoned properties are not just harmless eyesores. While they are not the cause of the problems facing distressed urban neighborhoods or rural towns, they make those areas’ problems worse. They reduce the value of neighboring properties, increase the risk of crime and fires, and perhaps most of all, foster a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that a neighborhood is beyond repair, and the only thing to do – if you can afford to – is to get out.

In areas where there are still far more occupied houses than abandoned ones, and where there’s demand, it makes sense to try to get the properties fixed up and restored to productive use.

The city of Baltimore came up with a great program they called Vacants to Value. Leaders there picked areas in the city – mostly struggling working-class neighborhoods – where small contractors and developers were willing to use their own money to fix up abandoned properties, and where the city made sure that they got properties to rehabilitate. That program has stabilized many neighborhoods in Baltimore that might otherwise have gone under.

The problems of abandoned properties in many places are made more difficult to deal with by legal systems like tax foreclosure, state laws that tie municipalities’ hands in dealing with abandoned properties, or local government neglect. These challenges can result in properties sitting empty and in legal limbo until they are beyond repair.

By the time the city or a nonprofit can get control of these properties, they have usually been vandalized, stripped of copper pipes and lack working plumbing, heating or electricity. They are expensive to restore, and there’s little money available to deal with more than a handful of them. In some cases, there’s little to do except demolish them.

Demolition got a boost about ten years ago, when the Obama administration allowed states to redirect money from what was called the Hardest Hit Fund – a program set up to help states deal with unsalvageable, foreclosed properties by tearing them down. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland made progress by demolishing thousands of abandoned properties. But the money ran out as the Obama administration ended.

Demolition is an expensive proposition, and even when affordable, there’s still a next step. What to do with the vacant lots that remain?

There are solutions, which can range from reforestation to the creation of urban farms, to mini- parks or solar fields. In Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has done great work along those lines.

Cities like Cleveland, which once had nearly a million people, but today has less than 400,000, can’t use more than a handful of their vacant lots for redevelopment. Many of the rest can be greened, with benefit for the residents and their environment. Sadly, some cities have trouble with greening as a strategy because even though they’ve been losing population since the 1950s, they’re still unwilling to accept the reality that they’re never going to have the population they had back then.

There are amazing people and organizations in American cities trying to deal with these problems. Groups like the Cuyahoga County Land Bank in Cleveland, and Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation in Youngstown are doing great work. But they don’t have enough resources to tackle more than a small part of the problem.

That goes to a larger issue. If we are going to deal with abandoned properties at the scale that is needed, we need more local initiatives, we need better state laws, but above all, we need more resources, especially public money to cover the costs that the private sector won’t or can’t cover.

There have been many efforts in Washington as far back as the 1970s, along with efforts in many state capitals, to direct attention and resources to this issue, but none of them have ever gotten much traction. Here and there a one-shot infusion of funds has helped, but there’s been no long-term, serious effort.

Meanwhile, cities and rural areas continue to struggle with the problem without the resources to fix it. Sadly, it may be that most people are basically untroubled by the prospect of leaving large parts of America, and the people who live there, behind.

Note: Barrett and Greene recently wrote a column about abandoned properties for Route Fifty.


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