Demolition City

Christopher Weber
Neighborhoods with High Vacancy Rates are Coming Down. What can Environmentalists do to Soften the Impact?

Coming soon to a city neighborhood near you: wrecking crews.

Cities are demolishing large numbers of vacant houses to try to stabilize the values of the surrounding homes. 60 Minutes reported that Cleveland, for instance, would destroy 20,000 empty homes. As Scott Pelley intoned, “Perfectly good homes, worth 75, 100 thousand dollars or more a couple of years ago, are being ripped to splinters.”

It seems mean-spirited, this process of gutting entire neighborhoods for the sake of a handful of houses. You could make a case for giving the empties to homeless families or handing them over to social service groups. It’s hardly necessary to point out that, from an environmental perspective, it’s an immense waste of resources to bulldoze rows of livable houses.

Still, at this point in Great Recession, serial teardowns may indeed be the best option in a situation with no good solutions. Yes, it’s wasteful. Yes, it lets foreclosing banks off the hook. But it may just keep the remaining owners in their homes.

A regular source of mine, urban planner and Tufts professor Justin Hollander, is an authority on this subject. He argues that the problem is straightforward: America has too many vacant houses: 10 million, by his count.

Writing in Slate, Hollander spoke in favor of tear-down policies. “Basic principles of supply and demand point to a very different solution for neighborhoods with high vacancy rates: to help stabilize prices by reducing supply—yes, by demolishing vacant homes or finding creative new, nonresidential uses for them.”

If your city or a neighboring one adopts a policy like Cleveland’s, what can you do to help soften the impact?

Look for creative, nonresidential uses. Perhaps a local church or synagogue needs more office or storage space. Maybe you need an extra garage for that antique roadster you’re restoring. Maybe you want to expand your garden or create studio space for artists. Cities will sell these properties for next to nothing, keeping them out of the landfill while supporting creative ventures.

Salvage materials. If old houses must come down, ask the contractor if you can pick through them first. Antique fixtures can be pried off and reused. Old bricks can pave a new patio. Some adventurous treasure hunting keeps valuable raw materials in circulation.

Adopt an empty lot. Neighboring owners can care for empty houses and properties just by mowing them and picking up trash. It may seem pointless, but appearances do matter. Keeping a neighborhood attractive may just slow its decline and lure new residents.

Volunteer for a community development corporation or land bank. These are the organizations that often end up deciding what do with blighted neighborhoods. By attending community meetings or sitting on a board, concerned residents can suggest environmentally friendly ideas about what will come next: a park, perhaps, or community garden or bird sanctuary.

As Hollander concludes, we need to do more “to help cities and towns plan for vacant and abandoned property as part of green infrastructure.”