Nationwide, vacant buildings are a problem in cities as diverse as Seattle, Pittsburgh and Hartford. Both buildings and property left vacant serve as magnets for crime, including arson and drug use. They are eyesores, and can turn into informal dumps for furniture and abandoned cars, among other detritus. If they’ve attracted squatters who cook or may have groceries, they can attract pests such as rats, which feed on abandoned food.
Vacant Building Syndrome Poses a Danger to People and Neighborhoods
Because they may attract criminals, vacant buildings can pose a danger to neighbors. In places with high property values and low rental vacancies, such as Seattle, vacant buildings may become havens for squatters, who damage the property, throw loud parties and strip the property of any valuable material. They increase the necessity of police surveillance. They can lower surrounding property values.
In fact, this whole constellation is known as “vacant building syndrome,” with increased possibilities for crime and danger to public safety, property and health.
Areas with large swaths of vacant building syndrome can become permanently blighted. So how can communities deal with vacant building syndrome?
Perhaps the most viable solution to vacant building syndrome is to plan for alternative use.
Alternative use plans vary, but they have several common elements.
First, a group takes over vacant buildings and property. The group can be local municipal authorities, community groups or a blend of the two. Pittsburgh city officials, for example, think a concept known as a “land bank” would be a good solution for their vacant building issue.
Land banks make abandoned buildings affordable and purchasable by community groups.
Second, the community groups have a plan for the abandoned property. In Seattle, for example, a group that works with the city’s large homeless population sees abandoned property as potential homeless shelters.
Other potential uses for the buildings are rehabbing to be housing for low-income residents or dorms for students. These uses are particularly popular in areas where property values are skyrocketing, such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Community groups can also tear down the buildings and rehab the land underlying them to create green space. They could become community gardens, dog parks, recreational areas or playgrounds.
Alternative use can revitalize a community, transforming vacant buildings into help for the community and community attractions.
How to Effect Alternative Use
Because alternative use methods depend on the laws, regulations and policies of each state and municipality and on a community, as well as the desired goals of alternative use groups, it is difficult to generalize about methods.
In broad terms, however, community groups wanting to pursue alternative use need to:
- Get in touch with local authorities to ascertain the existence of a program to encourage alternative use.
- Follow the program’s guidelines and rules.
- Have the property inspected. Use a qualified inspector and a notary for disclosures about the property’s condition.
- Get all the material for a real estate closing.
As your community nears acquisition, it’s important to research your state’s requirements for real estate closings. Several require the presence of an attorney, which could stall the proceedings if they are absent. In a best case scenario, everything will go smoothly, and you can quickly convert your new building.
So what happens if your attempt at converting a vacant building through alternative use falls through? A few other options exist for community members and officials to consider.
Increasing Property Taxes
One way communities are managing vacant buildings is by increasing property taxes. The theory is that a hike in property taxes will incentivize owners of vacant buildings to sell them — either to investors who want to build something that would be inhabited, or to organizations that would rehab the property.
In fact, one city that has tried increasing property taxes, Hartford, Conn., also has a plan to levy lower property taxes on groups that buy formerly abandoned property with an eye to giving it value and attractiveness. The city has a director of blight remediation whose mission is to work with community groups on solutions to vacant buildings and property.
A drawback to higher property taxes, however, is that they don’t always compel owners to give up the property. A similar plan in Washington, D.C., shows many property owners simply pay the higher taxes. Some may be holding on to the property in hopes of seeing their values go up, or for the neighborhood to become more attractive.
Higher property taxes for abandoned buildings have tended to be successful in hot real estate markets such as Washington, D.C., where property values are rising. But in places like Hartford, where they are not, the plan’s success has been limited at best.
Moreover, different property taxes may be unconstitutional in states like Pennsylvania, where taxes must be uniform by law.
Another solution, particularly favored by areas in cities whose economic prospects, population and tax bases are declining, is “right-sizing” neighborhoods. This concept means, in effect, abandoning abandoned properties.
Various methods encourage residents to cluster in certain neighborhoods, which retain police protection, city services and well-maintained infrastructure. Other areas remain without these amenities. The population is either moved or is incentivized to move to the maintained areas.
Rust Belt cities such as Flint, Mich., and Youngstown, Ohio, are de facto being right-sized, as their city managers acknowledge the need for more efficient use of city services in areas of population and economic decline.
But right-sizing, too, has several drawbacks. First, it takes time to right-size a city. In the interim, residents in or near abandoned areas are at risk of all the negative things associated with vacant building syndrome. Crime and dangers to public health can accelerate, making city problems worse, not better.
Second, there is no fail-safe mechanism to right-size a city. While city planners can float it as an idea, residents do not have to move. Many may feel an attachment to homes or neighborhoods that ultimately can derail right-sizing.
Alternative use is by far the best approach to vacant building syndrome, as it eliminates vacant buildings and benefits the community.