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Forum Feature: Is Demolition Always the Best Option for Vacant Properties?

April 10th, 2014 by

Alan Mallach

Alan Mallach

Demolition is one of several options available to municipal officials in dealing with vacant properties. But how do you know when to demolish a property, as opposed to seeking to acquire it, or seeking to find a new owner for it, or forcing the existing owner to bring it up to code? This is the question addressed by a panel of experts in a session at New Jersey Future’s Redevelopment Forum. Housing scholar Alan Mallach (presentation) gave an overview of the issues that are created or exacerbated by vacant properties; Camden housing advocate Pilar Hogan Closkey (presentation) talked about the strategies her organization, St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, has used to shore up struggling neighborhoods in that city; and Jennifer Kates (presentation), legislative aide to Philadelphia City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, spoke about Philadelphia’s decision to create a land bank to enable better coordination among city agencies in dealing with vacant properties.

Panelists agreed that vacant properties aren’t the cause of most city problems, but they make every problem worse and harder to solve. Vacant properties are much more disruptive than vacant land, so it is important in the eyes of neighbors either to “fix it up or tear it down, but don’t just let it sit there,”as Alan Mallach put it. In cities with weak real estate markets, where housing supply clearly exceeds demand, many vacant properties are likely to “sit there” for long periods of time, and strategies focused on rehabilitation may not have any effect. Furthermore, cities face difficulties encouraging homeownership because a lot of otherwise-willing city residents can’t qualify for a mortgage, making it hard to find new owners for problem properties. Demolition is thus an important option.

Not all potential demolition scenarios are equal, however; context is important. For example, in cities like Camden and Philadelphia where a large proportion of the housing stock is rowhomes (i.e., attached housing), the rehab-vs.-demolition decision depends often on whether it’s a mid-block vs. end-of-block unit. In addition to creating the “gap-toothed” look, demolishing a mid-block rowhouse can also increase costs significantly, because the now-exposed walls of the adjoining units often need to be stabilized. These problems are less significant if the vacant unit is at the end of the row.

Whenever demolition is being considered, it’s important to have “green” strategies at the ready for the resulting vacant lot. As soon as debris starts to accumulate, a vacant lot can become nearly as destabilizing as a vacant property, sending the same visual cues that this is a place about which no one cares. Strategies for using vacant lots to create more urban green space can also have unexpected benefits, too; for example, diverting stormwater onto vacant lots where it can soak into the ground can help avoid problems associated with combined sewer overflows (CSOs), a legacy infrastructure problem with which many older, struggling cities are saddled. (While admittedly an outlier, Detroit has enough vacant land that it could absorb 95 percent of its stormwater runoff into the ground instead of having it go into storm sewers.)

And finally, the panelists stressed the importance of thinking strategically. While it may be tempting to try to tackle the most blighted blocks first, it may be more cost-effective in the long run to start by shoring up the stronger neighborhoods, to prevent the appearance of early signals of disinvestment that will cause others to abandon ship. It is much cheaper to prevent a neighborhood from sliding into abandonment than to try to bring it back once it is there. Unfortunately, city systems that are charged with addressing blight are often not oriented toward seeking longer-term returns. Code enforcement is often more reactive to neighbor complaints than proactive in targeting the properties whose rehabilitation will save the most trouble down the road. In Philadelphia, the tax-and-lien foreclosure system is optimized to raise money rather than to stabilize neighborhoods, meaning that low-value properties tend to get left behind, even if they are in otherwise less-distressed neighborhoods.

When demolition proves to be the most viable option, recycling the land for a new use can happen faster if city officials have easy access to all appropriate information about a property. Philadelphia is moving toward a single database of information about individual properties, allowing officials to assess the likelihood of success of various strategies.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly easy for city officials to partner with community groups to solve the problem of vacant properties cooperatively, since they all have a common interest in alleviating the blight that these properties represent. Pilar Hogan Closky spoke about the education program that St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society has to help people prepare to be homeowners. In fact, she said, the organization’s involvement in rehabilitating housing has virtually created the market in East Camden – its efforts are the main reason home values have gone up. And as the vacancy rate has gone down, so too has the crime rate, further evidence that finding the right solution to a vacant-property problem can have multiple positive effects.

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