Report: Abandoned Homes Still a Drag in Some Cities

May 16, 2018

The number of vacant homes in the U.S. surged during the Great Recession. Many cities recovered and fewer homes are standing empty, but not everywhere. The number of homes that have been abandoned has risen 2.1 million nationally in recent years, and vacant properties continue to be a drag on former industrial epicenters or the nation’s “legacy” cities, according to a newly released report. These are properties that are sitting unused and are not for sale or rent. 

Vacancies have grown more widespread since the 1990s in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, all former industrial powerhouses, according to the report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, “The Empty House Next Door.” The vacancies are driving nearby property values down, hampering the city’s financial health, and leading to higher crime rates, the report notes.

The number of effectively vacant homes has grown from 3.7 million in 2005 to 5.8 million in 2016, according to the report. Hypervacancies—areas in which one in five properties sit vacant—have also continued to plague a handful of cities. For example, in 2015, more than 49 percent of tracts in Flint, Mich., 46 percent of tracts in Detroit, and 42 percent of tracts in Gary, Ind., saw “extreme hypervacancy,” where more than a quarter of units were vacant in each tract, the report notes. 

At levels like that, “the market effectively ceases to function,” the report’s author Allan Mallach, a city planner and housing advocate, notes. “Houses sell, if they sell at all, only to investors at rock bottom prices while neighborhoods become areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and health problems.”

Some cities are taking steps to rehabilitate, demolish, and reuse vacant properties as new housing or as green space, the report notes. For example, in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, collaborative public-private efforts have combined strategic demolition with rehabilitation to make refurbished homes available to new buyers at more affordable prices. In Baltimore, city officials are using receivership to place vacant properties with for-profit and nonprofit developers, which has brought 1,300 units back to use since 2010. 

In areas with less redevelopment, city planners are converting vacant properties into green space. In Cleveland, vacant land has been converted into green space and the city worked with a nonprofit partner to use $500,000 in grants to add 56 small parks, rain gardens, and architectural projects. 

The report urges that cities collect better data on vacancies, remove impediments to reuse, and adopt public strategies to drive a reuse of these abandoned properties so that vacancies no longer have to hold back a community’s progress.

Source: “The Empty House Next Door,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (May 2018)