How Communities Can Work Together to Combat Vacancy Problems

November 3, 2020

How can local government, community leaders, and REALTORS® work together to rehabilitate vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties and revitalize neighborhoods? That was the main question posed during the urban roundtable discussion “From Vacant to Vibrant,” presented by the National Association of REALTORS® as part of its 2020 Virtual Conference & Expo. A panel of government and industry experts agreed that fairness and equity are key components of any long-term plan.

Vacancies are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic, said Dr. Akilah Watkins-Butler, president and CEO of the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit dedicated to vacancy issues. Communities, local governments, and small businesses all need to work in concert to address these impending vacancies, Watkins-Butler said, and she recommended a long-term approach that includes:

  • Putting equity first. Revitalization, she argued, needs to focus on supporting cultural diversity and creating opportunity for all.
  • Collaborating at every level. Local governments should help to bring everyone to the table, she said.
  • Targeting systemic change. A piecemeal solution will not be enough, Watkins-Butler said. She advised organizers to seek out the underlying issues that are unique to a particular community and are responsible for exacerbating large-scale vacancies.

And to combat pandemic-related economic distress that could lead to greater vacancies in the short term, Watkins-Butler recommended that local governments use funding from COVID-19–related federal block grants to provide rental assistance to tenants and relief to struggling small businesses. Assistance for landlords also needs to be a priority. “Many landlords are small mom-and-pop businesses,” she said. “We want to make sure that they don’t lose their shirts. Interest rates are low at this point, and we can help them refinance.”

Ron Nirenberg, mayor of San Antonio, also championed the idea of making sure all voices are heard when addressing vacancy issues, and he offered insights gained from his city’s successful revitalization efforts. As of this year, San Antonio has added 6,019 units to its affordable housing stock, rehabilitated 412 homes, and helped 73 families with down payment assistance. The city has done this with an emphasis on inclusive growth and anti-displacement measures, he said. “We work through a racial equity lens,” Nirenberg said. “Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to live.”

Strategies the city has employed include developing a coordinated housing system, protecting and promoting established neighborhoods, and increasing investment in owner-occupied rehabilitation programs. Nirenberg advised that further ingenuity in these areas will be needed as COVID-19 pressures likely create vacancies of different types, potentially encompassing not only residential but also office and retail. One solution, he suggested, is rezoning to allow vacant offices to become affordable multifamily housing. “We need to think about transforming vacancies into new, long-term community assets,” he said.

Timothy Twardowski, partner with Robinson & Cole LLP and a frequent consultant for NAR, echoed his fellow panelists’ call for fairness and said REALTORS®, through their state and local associations, also have an opportunity to be included in the vacancy discussion. He cited the experience of the Delaware Association of REALTORS®, which used NAR’s Land Use Initiative to obtain a model vacant building ordinance that they used in dialogue with officials in Dover, Del.

Pete Kopf, moderator of the panel and 2020 REALTOR® Party director, concluded the roundtable by pointing out that the fall 2020 issue of On Common Ground, which focuses on rebuilding and stabilization with an emphasis on equity and inclusion, is now available. Kopf also invited those who may be interested in learning more to check out NAR’s Transforming Neighborhoods website.