From the belly of one of America’s boomtowns, where the rent rises with the elemental certainty of a helium balloon, the housing vacancies of America’s less fortunate urban areas almost defy the imagination. In Merced, Calif., undergrads do their math homework in the hot tubs of unsold McMansions. Gary, Ind., is selling homes for the price of a candy bar. In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, though in many ways an exceptional case, rabbits and rattlesnakes roam free.
If the recent housing crisis has a public face, it is the empty subdivisions of cities like Merced, Las Vegas and Tampa. Much of the country’s older vacant residential stock, those boarded-up row houses or dilapidated Victorians, provided the visual icon for a prior calamity, the decline of the American city. In the popular narrative, that story is over: farmers markets and yoga studios have since taken hold; even the South Bronx has come back.
In reality, countless homes remain vacant in both cities and suburbs. Over 10 percent of the 132 million housing units in the U.S. – 14 million homes – were vacant in 2011. Old-fashioned blight, compounded by the mortgage crisis, remains as much a problem as ever. The USPS analysis of blighted addresses, vacant homes and empty lots reveals the scale of the problem in America’s older cities. Last March, Detroit had more than 83,000 unoccupied residential addresses. That constitutes nearly 25 percent of the city’s potential housing stock. New Orleans had 44,000, for 21 percent. Cleveland had 41,000, or 19 percent.
For the most part, those numbers have not been affected by the housing crisis. But they contribute in their own way; a 2006 paper found that the ripple effect from an average foreclosure in Chicago struck $159,000 in value from the neighborhood. According to a subsequent study from Cleveland, the effect of foreclosures could result in property values declining by as much as 9 percent within a 10-block radius.
What’s changed? The techniques cities are using to fight back. It’s an area where communities have traded tactics to great effect. While each happy block is happy in its own way, unhappy blocks are often alike, or at least share a litany of common problems: unclear ownership, mountains of delinquent property taxes, a reclamation process snarled in red tape.
The first question is how a city can move these vacancies into the hands of owners who are willing and able to repair, build and improve the sites. The second question is what to do when no such owners exist. On both counts, American cities are putting forth a variety of answers, from dollar homes to sprawling urban farms. At the end of the line, they hope, is a revitalized urban landscape. It may not look much like what came before.
At the center of the vacant property renaissance is the land bank, a city authority that can take control over thousands of abandoned homes and turn them into something the community needs, housing or otherwise. Michigan has dozens of land banks. In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Land Bank demolished its 2,000th property last month. Chicago and Philadelphia are on the verge of having land banks of their own.
“In the past 24 months alone, five states have enacted comprehensive land bank legislation,” says Frank S. Alexander, a professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta who helped write those laws. The land bank concept has an appeal that transcends geographic and economic borders. ”New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska. What do those states have in common? Absolutely nothing.”
Since 2007, city and state officials, nonprofits, developers and others have gathered at a series of conferences to discuss land banks and other methods to deal with vacant properties. They exchange tales of stringent code enforcement (fix that window or the city will do it for you), streamlined foreclosure laws (to ease the requisition of abandoned property) and expanded receiver powers (to establish community control over vacant homes).
That growing audience comprises what Joe Schilling, the director of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, calls a movement. ”There’s a lot of innovation and workaround,” Schilling told me. “A kind of entrepreneurial spirit is a common theme among conference participants and folks who have to work on vacant properties.”
Why is this all happening now? American cities have harbored boarded-up homes and derelict blocks for decades. The St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority, the nation’s first urban land bank, was founded in 1971 and has accumulated more than 11,000 properties since.
But interest in the concept has boomed in recent years. In part, this is because the housing bust has made foreclosure a household term. No longer are rows of abandoned homes a uniquely urban problem. Land banking finally received federal recognition in 2008, with designated appropriations from Congress.
“When the mortgage foreclosure crisis hit, it became apparent that blight and abandonment and vacancy touched all communities,” says Tamar Shapiro, the executive director of the Center for Community Progress, which organized the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in Philadelphia last month.
The resurgent interest in vacancies is also thanks to the sober attitude of city officials who have begun to confront the inevitable, unspoken truth of the American city: population decline isn’t a blip. Nine out of the 10 largest U.S. cities in 1950 (all but Los Angeles) lost residents beginning in that decade. Some, like New York City, Boston and Washington D.C., are currently thriving. The others, to varying degrees, are struggling. But cities have historically been wary to address – or even accept – the permanence of that decline.
That is slowly changing. “There’s still stigma attached to this issue,” Shapiro says. ”There’s a huge potential for cities to learn from each other and get a sense they’re not alone in dealing with these challenges.” To urbanists, a thriving land bank may be a symbol of forward-thinking policy — but it also advertises the extent of the damage. Cities typically boast of receiving grants, but is the Genesee County Land Bank’s recent $20 million award to demolish 1,700 homes really the stuff of a triumphant press release?
Youngstown, Ohio, is considered a model in this regard: one of the central platforms of the city’s Youngstown 2010 plan was “accepting the reality” that the city will not recover its lost population. “[Youngstown] has been described as a size 40 man wearing a size 60 suit,” the report quipped. The previous comprehensive plan, formulated in the early 1950s, had imagined the population growing toward 250,000 people. Instead, population declined 60 percent, to 65,000. The new plan includes substantial revisions for the use of space. Acreage for commercial use, for example, declines by 16 percent.
Land banks, proponents argue, make this type of long-term planning easier by consolidating control of abandoned and vacant properties. In contrast to typical foreclosure auctions, where speculators can buy urban land en masse, public land banks are more selective, often turning down offers that don’t align with strategic goals. The mayor of Gary is selling houses for a dollar… but only if owners meet a $35,000 minimum income requirement and live in the house for five years. Other cities might forego piecemeal bids in order to transform collections of parcels into parkland, urban farms or a larger development.
This doesn’t sit well with opponents of land banks, for whom this selective sales policy is tantamount to Tammany Hall-style patronage. Two researchers at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank in Missouri, recently wrote an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer urging Philadelphians not to make what in their opinion are the mistakes that have plagued the St. Louis land bank. “To get land back to productive use as quickly as possible,” they wrote, “a land bank should accept all reasonable offers, even if politicians oppose them.”
Indeed, the distribution of land bank property in St. Louis has come under intense criticism for a number of reasons. But the idea that the redistribution of vacant land is about turning a quick profit is shortsighted. Some cities need more housing — the Atlanta land bank’s biggest transferee is Habitat for Humanity, Alexander says — and some do not.
In a widely praised Philadelphia program, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has helped “clean and green” more than 2,100 vacant lots, increasing neighborhood property values in the process. The Detroit Future City plan has proposed using vacant landscapes as a complement to traditional infrastructure. More park space, for example, could reduce the burden on the city’s overworked storm-water system.
Joe Schilling, for one, thinks those policies will pay off down the road. “I envision those communities having a very high quality of life, lots of green space. They may be more resilient than many of the fastest-growing cities today.”
Those aren’t profits that will show up on a land bank’s ledger books, and that’s not a bad thing. Vacancy can be an asset.