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Vacant building issues include unpaid property taxes, fires and crime, but localities are making some progress reining them in.
A three-story abandoned townhome in Baltimore, Maryland caught fire just before 6 a.m. on the chilly morning of Monday, Jan. 24. Firefighters quickly arrived at the blaze. Four of them were trapped inside, when part of the building collapsed. Three were killed and a fourth was injured.
This tragic scene spotlighted a problem that has bedeviled Baltimore and many other cities and counties across the country: The prevalence of abandoned properties that grow dilapidated, disheveled and often dangerous over time. In Baltimore, there are an estimated 15,000 vacant properties according to Mayor Brandon Scott, who has ordered the city’s agencies to take a close look at their policies for dealing with vacant buildings.
“These structures can devastate the neighborhood and block, undermine the neighbors’ quality of life and diminish the value of nearby properties,” according to a report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “They also cause severe fiscal damage to local governments, reducing local tax revenues while costing cities millions for policing, cleaning vacant lots and demolishing derelict buildings.”
Says Michael Braverman, former director of Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development: “People fall into the trap of seeing that there are vacant and abandoned buildings and think they must be the fault of bad landlords and bad bureaucrats who aren’t holding them accountable. But there are many things that cities can do to resolve these problems and resolve them equitably. Baltimore made a good start in years past, but cities like Baltimore can do a lot better than they are.”
Meanwhile, Cook County, Illinois is forgoing an estimated $1.15 billion a year in property taxes as a result of thousands of pieces of vacant property that aren’t bringing in a penny of revenue. Some $255 million of that is in Chicago alone.
“In the city of Chicago there are 10,000 pieces of abandoned property they can’t unload. They can’t even be sold for one dollar,” says Maria Pappas, Cook County treasurer. "There are properties that have been available for 20 years … block after block of blighted areas.”
Pappas is intent on dealing with this issue and has been making progress in expanding the number of people who attend the county’s “scavenger sale,” which is held every two years to auction off properties with three of more years of delinquent taxes over the past two decades. Prior scavenger sales attracted between 250 and 350 potential buyers. This year, there are over 900 at the sale being held Feb. 14 through March 2.
Notable among the steps the treasurer’s office has taken to build up the buyer pool was the creation of an interactive map allowing anyone to see all the properties, how many are in a certain community and block, and learn the characteristics of each property to be offered, according to a press release.
This is just the beginning, according to Pappas. “The scavenger sale is still an imperfect tool,” she says. “Even after this scavenger sale, there will still be thousands of neglected properties.”
Other Chronic Issues
Financial losses attributed to vacant properties are only the beginning of the problem nationally. For example, according to a 2019 study by the county treasurer’s office, half of all violent crime in Chicago is focused in the 13 wards with the most abandoned properties. These wards are predominantly occupied by Black residents, according to the report.
“The problem is so enormous that it is hard to comprehend,” says JB McCuskey, West Virginia’s state auditor and the only auditor in the country who handles tax delinquent property. “It is one of the issues that is holding our state back. It’s not just the financial burden on families who own homes on blocks with dilapidated buildings.”
McCuskey also says it’s a safety issue. Parkersburg, West Virginia, for instance, had about 34 fires last year in abandoned properties. “People go in there and light fires to stay warm. It’s not a surprise that some burn down,” he adds.
McCuskey has been pushing a bill winding its way through the legislature that would allocate $30 million to help communities tear down buildings that are beyond repair. “The cities and counties don’t have the ability to take care of them,” he says, pointing out that these resources would make it possible for the state to procure regional contracts that would allow communities to tear down several buildings at once. The economies of scale that would provide could, he argues, get a lot more out of each dollar devoted to demolition.
Land Banks Providing Resources
Some cities and counties use land banks to try to deal with abandoned properties. Genesee County, Michigan, home to Flint, was a pioneer in this effort. The issues there are enormous. Between the loss of thousands of General Motors jobs and the housing crash of 2008, abandoned properties cropped up everywhere like a field of poisonous mushrooms.
“We’ve been building back, but it’s a slow process,” says Deb Cherry, county treasurer, who has held that office since 2011. “I deal mostly with delinquent taxes, and the number of houses being foreclosed went from around 100 when I took office to about 1,000 a year now.”
It can take a few years before the county can take possession of properties for nonpayment of taxes. But then, they can be turned over to the land bank to deal with them. The land bank was able to be more active in handling the properties in its possession until the Trump administration cut back dramatically on the federal funding necessary to demolish or restore properties.
Though land banks are scrambling for cash, they have notable success stories. Recalls Michael Freeman, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority: “There was a large funeral home that burned down about a year ago; half of it was left standing and there were several levels underneath. And there was an asbestos issue … [and] other chemicals on the premises that had leached into the ground.”
Fortunately, the land bank had a good relationship with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and got approval for about $750,000 to demolish the building so the environmental hazards could be rectified. “That was the value of having the land bank,” Freeman says. “Otherwise, it would have sat there as a dangerous and hazardous structure for a long time. It would have been a nightmare.”
Data Needed to Attack the Challenge
One of the issues that can stand in the way of cities and counties that want to deal with their abandoned properties is the absence of sufficient information to guide their efforts. Cleveland, however, is leading the nation in its use of data to attack this formidable challenge.
The work originated with Case Western Reserve University in 2005. It created a cutting-edge data system, which harvests information from all manner of public sources, including municipal and county data focused on property.
How is it used? “At the most micro level, someone who works in a community development corporation can track certain properties and use the data to find out who owns the property, how to get in touch with them and how to go about buying the property,” explains Frank Ford, a senior policy advisor to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that helps revitalize urban centers.
The goal is to move foreclosed houses into “beneficial hands,” Ford says people who are going to do something to add a benefit not only to the property but to adjacent residents.
Progress has been made. As of December 2021, over 9,000 parcels in the land bank’s inventory were demolished and 4,313 were repurposed. That’s a big step forward, but with about 4,600 vacant properties remaining in the county—mostly in the heavily Black eastern side of Cleveland—“the work isn’t done,” says Ford.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
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