Strategies to Manage Vacant and Abandoned Properties

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DetroitCities suffering from significant population losses are sometimes referred to as “shrinking cities.” Most notably, the City of Detroit has lost 25 percent of its population from 2010 to 2000. When comparing the City’s peak population of 1.8 million in 1950 to today, the population has decreased more than 60 percent to about 700,000.

The decreasing population in Detroit has left many buildings vacant, in particular residential units. The US Census estimated that close to 100,000 residential units, or 27 percent of all of its units, are vacant. This rate is more than twice as high as the national residential vacancy rate of 12 percent. Vacant properties hurt neighborhoods because high vacancy rates can encourage criminal activity, increase risk of fires, and reduce property values.

While Detroit is an extreme example, many communities face similar problems, whether from population decrease or high foreclosure rate. Community development experts recommend four strategies to manage vacant and abandoned properties:

  • Demolish structures and add property to a land bank. In August 2013, the City of Detroit was awarded $52.3 million in federal money to demolish 4,000 blighted structures. The Detroit Land Bank has acquired many of these properties and others. Land banks are public or community-owned entities that acquire, manage, and maintain real estate, in particular abandoned, foreclosed, and vacant properties. Local governments in North Carolina possess statutory authority to function as land banks.
  • Give a vacant lot (or multiple) to a neighboring property owner for a side yard, on condition that the owner maintains it. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) established the Lot Next Door Program in 2007 to enable property owners to purchase abandoned, NORA-owned properties that share their fence line. These property owners are required to maintain these properties. NORA also offers technical assistance and up to $10,000 discount for landscape improvements or garden start-ups to new properties owners through its Growing Home Incentive program.
  • Provide local institutions and property owners information about health of neighborhoods and vacant properties for sale. It is important for local institutions making investments in neighborhood revitalization to know which neighborhoods they should target. Located in Camden, NY, Cam Connect works to improve access to information. Can Connect provides multiple services to organizations in Camden including mapping neighborhoods to identify areas of disinvestment and recently abandoned properties. In Philadelphia, Grounded in Philly collects data from multiple City agencies and publishes it on its interactive website to inform residents about location of vacant properties along with its square footage, current owners, tax value, and tips to purchase the lots. By providing residents this information, Grounded in Philly is empowering residents to organize around vacant lots and develop potential solutions.
  • Use vacant parcels for a vineyard, orchard, community garden, park, rain garden, or public art. Simple improvements to vacant parcels can help improve their image. Some communities work with residents on developing community gardens, small parks, or public art displays. The City of Philadelphia’s LandCare program has received national attention for its landscape efforts of vacant properties. When assuming control of a vacant property, the City immediately removes debris from the property and then completes landscape improvements. Just as important, the City also installs a fence around the perimeter of the property not necessarily to keep people out of property, but to signal a well-maintained property that is part of the City’s program. According to the City’s website, the average cost for these minimal landscape improvements is $1,300 per property. The City also provides ongoing maintenance to these properties. For a more extreme example, the City of Cleveland rezoned 26 acres of vacant land into an Urban Agriculture Zone to promote urban farming and create jobs. Residents who complete a farming class are eligible to lease a small parcel in this zone. 

While none of the examples included are from North Carolina, it is important to note that the real challenge of addressing vacant buildings is that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Communities should look at strategies and tools that have worked in similar cities, but ultimately, they must have an understanding of where vacant properties are located within their neighborhoods and how their local housing market will limit or allow productive reuse of vacant buildings.

The Center for Community Progress offers excellent additional examples as well as case studies and toolkits for local governments interested in managing and reintegrating vacant and abandoned properties.

References and Additional Resources:

Jordan Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Public Administration and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.



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