The American economy is slowly recovering from the housing bubble yet many neighborhoods are still struggling with abandoned foreclosures. Blighted property ordinances are common though identifying properties and enforcing the ordinances can be significant challenges.
If you’ve been paying attention to the housing market, you’ve noticed that it’s fashionable for the media to occasionally issue “top ten” lists for cities with the most foreclosed or abandoned homes. In this USA Today article published on Saturday, you can find a top ten list that includes Atlanta (at number nine).
The challenge with these lists is that so few people look at the supporting information. For example, there are ten cities listed, yet Wichita, KS (number five on the list) has less than 100 abandoned homes. Birmingham, AL and Boise, ID are both listed yet they have 375 and 361 abandoned homes respectively. That’s a pretty stark contrast to the other cities that have well in excess of 1,000 abandoned homes.
Jacksonville, FL is listed at number two on the list with 5,475 abandoned homes. Can you imagine the area occupied by that many homes? Atlanta isn’t laid out on a neat grid like some other cities though in Midtown Atlanta it’s common to find about fifteen homes on a block. By that measure, Jacksonville’s 5,475 abandoned homes would equal 365 square blocks. That’s a huge area – larger than any single development of which we’re aware.
Abandoned homes, especially those with no air conditioning are subject to significant mold and mildew issues. Home owners must constantly protect against water intrusion – water getting in the house through roof, window, foundation and other leaks. Without regular maintenance, houses can deteriorate quickly. In really hot weather with high humidity, the houses are essentially composting from the inside out. It doesn’t take long for an abandoned house to be a total loss.
Some municipalities (cities and counties) use a blighted property ordinance to address the properties that are diminishing the value of neighboring properties. Some Georgia municipalities have adopted ordinances that allow a higher tax rate on nuisance (blight) to encourage maintenance or a sale of the property. You can find a model ordinance on the Georgia Municipal Association’s website. This approach makes some sense if the additional revenue can be dedicated to enforcement of the ordinance rather than just going into the municipality’s general fund.
As you might expect, Detroit is ground zero for the issue of blighted property. The Detroit Blight Authority was created to address the issue. The authority is a non-profit corporation addressing the issue we described earlier – the authority’s pilot project cleared a ten-block area. Using our previous numbers, that could be approximately 150 properties. The work was done at no cost to taxpayers.
Those of us living in municipalities without a blighted property ordinance should be paying attention. In 2012, we saw article after article after article about the overly-creative and irresponsible suggestion for the use of eminent domain to seize properties where home owners owed more than the property was worth. The suggestion was intended to prevent foreclosures and abandoned properties. Berkley’s City Council passed a resolution urging county officials to keep the properties out of the hand of banks.
Please consider using your neighborhood civic organization (or organizing your neighbors) to explore whether your municipality has the tools to address issues like abandoned properties. If not, you can start a discussion about whether a blighted property ordinance is right for your municipality before your local leaders try to employ existing tools like eminent domain for applications outside of their intended use.
We’re more successful when we work together as neighbors to address issues like blighted properties by recruiting new neighbors and gathering to discuss issues in a proactive way. Please leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts – especially if you’d like to share any best practices or experiences.
Image by Kevin Dooley used under creative commons license.