Vacant buildings—especially ones that stretch through blocks of neighborhoods—have reached “epidemic levels” in some cities, according to a new report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy titled “The Empty House Next Door.” Formerly industrial cities in the Rust Belt are seeing the highest levels of what researchers call “hypervacancy.” Hypervacancy consists of blocks and neighborhoods of vacant buildings and lots that comprise 20 percent or more of the housing stock of an area. 

The cities with 10 percent or more of all units vacant, according to 2010 census data, are: Gary, Ind.; Detroit; Flint, Mich.; Dayton, Ohio; Cleveland; St. Louis; Buffalo, N.Y.; Baltimore; Birmingham; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Philadelphia; and Milwaukee. One out of every two census tracts in Cleveland are considered hypervacant. In Gary, 25,000 vacant homes or lots cover 40 percent of the city’s parcels, according to the report. 

At such levels of vacancy, “the market effectively ceases to function,” notes urban scholar Alan Mallach, who compiled the report. “Houses sell, if they sell at all, only to investors at rock bottom prices while the neighborhoods become areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and health problems,” Mallach writes. 

Many community redevelopment projects focus on new housing and public spaces, but Mallach states that vacancy and hypervacancy requires a different approach. Vacant properties place a severe financial strain on cities, reduces property tax revenue, and can cost millions of dollars for policing, inspecting, cleaning, and demolition, the report notes. 

In Toledo, Ohio, for example, a study of vacant properties found that the cost to the city is $3.8 million annually and $2.7 million in tax revenues. The impact in the surrounding community was found to be $98.7 million in lost property value due to the perceived decline in value from being near vacant buildings. 

Some cities have focused on demolition to relieve its vacancies. For example, more than 150 land bank authorities have been formed nationwide, with the highest number in Ohio and Michigan, to help remove vacancy properties. 

Certain metros are focusing on the rehabilitation of vacant homes. In Cleveland, the Slavic Village Recovery Project is turning vacant blocks into affordable single-family homes that sell between $50,000 to $69,000 to buyers. Other cities are looking at creating urban farms, parks, or community gardens to fill the vacant spots. 

Source: “The High Cost of Abandoned Property, and How Cities Can Push Back,” Curbed.com (June 1, 2018)