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Addressing Problem Properties and Their Impacts

Vacant, deteriorated properties negatively influence the surrounding lots.

Imagine your ideal neighborhood. Does it include vacant, boarded-up homes and weedy lots strewn with litter? Of course not. Whether they occur in the center city, the suburbs or small rural towns, vacant and abandoned properties are detrimental to the quality of the surrounding neighborhood. The foreclosure crisis of the last decade left many communities to grapple with such properties and the effects are still being felt.  

“No one anticipated the mortgage crisis at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, but everyone felt its consequences,” writes Frank S. Alexander in Land Banks and Land Banking, 2nd Edition. “With the highest rates of mortgage foreclosures on record, the inventories of vacant and abandoned properties also reached levels never seen before.” Banks suddenly owned significant real estate portfolios, but were not present in the neighborhoods and often did not invest in the upkeep. Alexander explains, “In all jurisdictions, loan servicers and lenders are extremely reluctant to invest additional funds in vacant residential properties, preferring to minimize holding costs in the face of declining markets.”

Large numbers of homes lost to foreclosure in the last decade therefore were not merely vacant, but essentially abandoned. Unattended and uncared-for, homes were left to deteriorate from the forces of age and weather, overrun by vegetation and misused by troublemakers. The resulting problem properties affected the neighborhoods surrounding them, attracting crime and pests, creating unsafe conditions, and downgrading the property values of the neighboring houses.

Nonprofit organizations and local governments were faced with the twin challenges of finding a way to stem the tide of foreclosures to prevent new vacancies and finding ways to reclaim and reuse the now-vacant properties before neighborhoods were overrun with blight.

Strategies for Problem Properties

Boarded-up row homes in Baltimore

Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr Creative Commons

 Municipal governments and their community development allies have two options for coping with a vacant building or lot: transfer title from the neglectful owner to a new one, or mitigate the impacts of vacancy while the property remains with its current owners. In either case, the idea is to eliminate blighting influences and put properties to more productive and beneficial use.

Land banking has become a key strategy for coping with the large numbers of properties left vacant in places hit hard by foreclosure, such as Michigan and Ohio. The Genesee County Land Bank, formed in 2004 to deal with the staggering number of foreclosed and abandoned properties in and around Flint, Michigan, has become a model for other areas. Though some are operated by nonprofits, land banks are usually public or quasi-public entities that exist to acquire vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or tax-delinquent properties, remediate the problems and then resell them to responsible owners. These entities usually have special authority to acquire properties at low (or no) cost through tax foreclosure, clear the titles and negotiate resale. As Genesee County Land Bank’s mission statement makes clear, the priority is not merely to resell to any new owner, but to ensure “responsible land ownership” so that they will be problem properties no longer.

Baltimore's Vacants to Value website shows available properties.

Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program uses a multi-pronged approach to combat abandonment and blight, including code enforcement, strategic demolition, incentives and streamlined processes for the sale for city-owned and receivership properties. The city partners with developers to rehabilitate properties for resale and hosts a website that includes up-to-date maps, property listings and other tools to make it easier to match available properties with prospective homeowners. The program includes neighborhood- and block-specific strategies to protect stronger markets, shore up areas threatened with decline, and bring severely distressed areas back from the brink. Now seven years old, the program has suffered some setbacks including difficulty financing its ambitious goals, but a few long-blighted neighborhoods have seen significant benefits.

Strategies like Vacants to Value require city or county departments to share information and coordinate closely and manage an overwhelming amount of detailed data. In New York, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last week announced a partnership with LISC and Enterprise Community Partners to help cities access, organize and use data from different sources to help them formulate and implement effective housing revitalization strategies. Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement (“Cities RISE”) will provide up to 40 municipalities across New York State with technology that will integrate, map, and analyze property data from a variety of different agencies within a municipality including code enforcement records, tax liens, and fire and police data.

Blight Mitigation
The ideal strategy for problem properties is to get them in the hands of new, responsible owners, but it is not always possible to do so quickly, or at all. In that case, communities must find ways to mitigate the effects of blighted buildings and lots on the surrounding areas.  There are several effective approaches that can help.

Beautification: Cleaning and clearing of overgrown lots is a simple but effective way to make an instant difference in the appearance of a block. Municipal governments and nonprofits in areas with high numbers of vacant lots have created programs to assist resident groups to clear lots and reuse them for gardens, parks and other purposes. Lots to Love in Pittsburgh provides a listing of every vacant lot in Alleghany County, as well as design ideas, fundraising advice, and a “mobile toolbox,” a van full of lawn tools that neighborhood groups can borrow.

Students in Kansas City work on paintings to brighten up vacant homes.

 Public art is another way to turn a liability into an asset. In Kansas City, Missouri, the KC No Violence Alliance cleared brush from overgrown lots and enlisted youth to paint colorful murals, displayed on boarded-up homes along the Prospect Corridor. Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities also uses art to transform urban spaces and build community.

Code enforcement and judicial remedies: In Buffalo’s Housing Court, Judge Henry Nowak (now on the NY State Supreme Court) proved to be an innovator in using the power of the bench to hold landowners accountable for fixing problem properties, imposing fines and jail time when needed, as well as involving community members and nonprofits in finding ways to address problem properties.

Crime and safety programs: Vacant buildings and overgrown lots provide unattended spaces where criminal activity can take place in a community. Neighbors typically know where these nuisance properties are, and can be valuable allies for local law enforcement. LISC Safety helps residents, community groups and local police use data to spot crime trends and “hot spots” in their communities, plan strategies to address them, and work together effectively to solve crime problems. Residents in Milwaukee and Providence have met with great success working with local police to address problem properties in their communities.

Prevention: As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. Providing assistance with minor repairs is more cost-effective and efficient than remediating severely dilapidated abandoned properties, so keeping homes habitable should be a part of any blight remediation strategy. For lower-income homeowners, the cost of even minor home repairs can be out of reach; scarce funds must be used for more pressing needs like groceries and utilities. But low-cost loans or grant programs to assist homeowners with minor or moderate repairs can keep occupied homes from deteriorating or becoming abandoned. There are local, state and federal home repair programs and many nonprofits provide grant assistance for this purpose. Rebuilding Together has a nationwide network of more than 200 affiliates that help low-income families and seniors make needed repairs to their homes.

Resources for Problem Properties

Here are some of our previously published resources and articles on dealing with vacant properties.

The Center for Community Progress provides training and technical assistance on vacant and abandoned property strategies, as well as publications and resources on land banking and related topics.

 LISC Safety offers Problem Properties resources, including a guide to using code enforcement to improve neighborhood safety and guidance on how communities can partner with police to combat crime problems stemming from abandoned properties.

Find the perfect idea for your vacant lot in the Detroit Future Cities "Field Guide".

 Detroit Future City created an innovative resource that helps community members figure out the best use for vacant lots. Options include short-term and long-term uses, large and small spaces, special-purpose gardening plans and more:  Working with Lots: A Field Guide.

Read some vacant property success stories from LISC partners in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC and rural Maine.

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