The American landscape is dotted with hopes and dreams -- homes that provide security for countless families, Main Streets lined with opportunity, schools and parks that knit our communities together. As surely as these bricks and beams fulfill our aspirations, the abandonment of houses, neighborhoods, and once-great landmarks represents dreams unattained and lost, the tragedy of places no longer cared for.
In some cities vacant properties are rare, standing out like a few missing teeth. But in other communities the scale of abandonment is far greater, with entire streets and neighborhoods resembling urban ghost towns. For those living among them, vacant properties are nothing short of a curse. Neighbors are forced to tolerate eyesores that attract crime, arson, vermin, and trash. Derelict buildings present safety and fire hazards, reduce property values, and degrade environmental health and quality of life.
Fortunately, some cities are beginning to address these challenges head-on. In recent years, cities such as Richmond, Va., Flint, Mich., and Philadelphia, Pa., have launched ambitious initiatives to reclaim their vacant properties. Others, such as San Diego, Calif., and Savannah, Ga., have taken aggressive steps to prevent abandonment in the first place. The challenge is attracting a broader set of stakeholders, from environmental advocates who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl to affordable housing groups seeking to rehabilitate homes.
The vacant properties problem is also generating more scrutiny from researchers and policy makers than ever before -- yet another indication of the expanding search for solutions. The Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy and CEOs for Cities have recently co-sponsored research looking into the challenges cities face with abandonment, but also the specific steps local governments can take to encourage reclamation.i The Fannie Mae Foundation and the Ford Foundation continue to sponsor research and training supporting academics and practitioners in the field. In the summer of 2003 the General Accounting Office released a report critiquing the federal government’s role as an abandoned property landlord.ii
For many, abandonment is still considered a phenomenon of older, industrial cities. Many of these cities, such as Muskegon, Mich., Erie, Pa., and others in the Northeast and upper Midwest, suffer from severe cases of abandonment. However, areas in the fast-growing Southwest and West are also struggling with vacant properties, such as Phoenix, Ariz., and San Bernardino County, Calif. Much like their Eastern counterparts, as these areas continue to sprawl past the metropolitan fringe, their cores hollow out, leaving commercial corridors and formerly stable residential neighborhoods scarred with abandoned buildings and vacant lots.
The Vacant Property/Smart Growth Connection
Reclaiming vacant properties and abandoned buildings is a key smart growth strategy. The practitioners of smart growth seek to stem the harmful effects of sprawl by encouraging reinvestment in the places where people already live, work, and play. The long-term solutions to preserving farmland, improving air and water quality, supporting biodiversity, and addressing a host of other environmental concerns will be the creation, and re-creation, of vibrant and diverse cities, suburbs, and towns. “To decry sprawl is not the same as resisting growth,” writes urban affairs specialist Tony Proscio, “The alternative to sprawl is not stagnation, but a better, fuller use of already developed spaces -- especially those whose deterioration and neglect is now causing the flight that fuels sprawl in the first place.”
Vacant properties are usually in existing communities, and their redevelopment can often spur revitalization efforts in adjoining neighborhoods. These older neighborhoods were built before the advent of “sprawl zoning,” which encourages the segregation of uses and requires large amounts of surface parking. Such neighborhoods often feature more walkable places, and are already laid out for a mix of uses (residential, commercial, office). As communities work to change their zoning codes to allow for more mixed-use development -- after making it illegal for several decades -- properties in older neighborhoods can offer ready-made examples of how a building can conform to mixed-use standards.
Since community development corporations (CDCs) often struggle to find affordable land in urban locations, reclaimed abandoned buildings are ideal locations for affordable housing construction and rehabilitation. In fact, many CDCs got their start battling the city over abandoned buildings, and ended up as successful affordable housing developers.
Preservationists: Historic Allies for Reclaimed Neighborhoods
Local preservationists can only win when civic leadership puts solving the problem of vacant properties at the top of the agenda. These vacant properties may include buildings with significant historic assets, but even those that don’t can still become a catalyst for a spiraling disinvestment pattern threatening nearby historic structures and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the solutions to vacant properties are very familiar to preservationists, such as “smart” rehabilitation codes (see May/June 2003 Forum News, “Low-Cost Local Incentives for Historic Preservation”), streamlined acquisition laws, and policies to prevent abandonment from taking root, among several others.
Sometimes, even well-meaning public officials advocate for widespread demolition as the answer for persistent abandonment issues. While sometimes necessary for buildings that pose imminent threats to public safety, the indiscriminate demolition of vacant properties often creates a short-term fix with longer-term side effects. In a study of the impact of vacant and abandoned properties on area property values, researchers at the University of Minnesota estimated that a property’s value would fall by $1,300 as a result of the demolition of a vacant property on the same city block. This same study found that the rehabilitation of vacant housing seemed to stabilize nearby property values. The results of this study, which looked at St. Paul, Minn., stand in contrast to the common misconception that large-scale demolition always improves market values or the attractiveness of a city to current and potential residents.
The Beginnings of a National Movement
In early 2003 Smart Growth America, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and the International City County/Managers Association (ICMA) founded the National Vacant Properties Campaign to provide national leadership on this issue. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently became the fourth member of the campaign’s executive committee, which is complemented by a 20-member advisory committee made up of a diverse group of stakeholders representing academia, CDCs, financial services, real estate development, etc. The campaign’s goals are to: 1) build a national network to support a national movement, 2) give communities the tools and resources they need, 3) make the case for reclamation through targeted communications, and 4) provide technical assistance and training.
In our first year of existence we have been successful in getting our message out through national media such as the New York Times, trade publications such as Government Technology, and our various sponsors’ publications such as Forum News. We have participated in several conferences around the country to speak about the campaign and develop partnerships, including the National Preservation Conference in Denver, meetings of the Federal Reserve Bank, and the National Congress for Community Economic Development. We have developed a website, www.vacantproperties.org, to be a one-stop shop for news and information about vacant properties, and have started a listserve to allow practitioners, researchers, advocates, and others to connect easily and quickly. In the spring of 2004 we will begin offering technical assistance and training to selected communities. In December 2003 the campaign helped to sponsor training for municipal officials in the Las Vegas, Nev., region.
Abandoned buildings represent more than bricks and mortar. They are the living history of communities and can be the landmarks of neighborhoods. Historic preservationists have often been the first to recognize the value and potential of abandoned buildings as community assets. As Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote, “Abandoned buildings can break a neighborhood’s heart. Demolished buildings can destroy its soul.”
i CEOs for Cities is partnering with the Brookings Institution on a vacant land reform project, including a ten-step action agenda for urban land-use reform and case studies of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, as well as two discussion papers. The first two parts, Seizing City Assets: Ten Steps to Urban Land Reform and Vacant-Property Policy and Practice: Baltimore and Philadelphia, are available now.
ii The report acknowledged that all three agencies had “ongoing nationwide initiatives to realign their real estate portfolios” and get rid of unneeded property. The report said the federal government’s underused properties present significant potential risks “not only for lost dollars because such properties are costly to maintain but also for lost opportunities.” Vacant and Underutilized Properties at GSA, VA and USPS, U.S. General Accounting Office, August 2003.