Vacancy is in essence, city rot. If allowed to take hold, it spreads, and in time, will destroy the whole if not treated. Criminologist William Spelman found that, in Austin, “crime rates on blocks with open abandoned buildings were twice as high as rates on matched blocks without open buildings.” Communities are like fabric. The more people cross paths, the higher the thread count. If we traced the paths of people, as they came across one another face to face , we would have a set of lines. The more lines, the stronger the fabric, the stronger the sense of community. When we have a high thread count, a community is strong, resilient, hard to pull apart. When those lines are few, the fabric is weak, and comes apart easily. When property is abandoned, that section of fabric begins to rot and the thread deteriorates. Most people will then avoid that area, but worse, some will seek it out.
Vacant property has a significant impact on property values both to the property itself, but also all the adjacent parcels. In this, it significantly reduces the amount of property taxes government can collect. It has an effect on income tax and sales tax in the area and again reduces the tax base. It dampens civic pride and affects the way people feel about their city leading to apathy and negativity. The deterioration of legacy buildings is one of the single greatest contributors to a community’s lack of self-esteem. It decreases tourism and economic development efforts. It increases crime and risk of fire. A study completed by Place Economics based on a study by RMA showed that a vacant, average sized, mixed-use, downtown building, would cost upwards of $200,000 annually in lost revenue and increased cost. A study done by the Toledo Blade in 2006 found that vacant property cost taxpayers $3.8 million.
This rot is expensive. It destroys a community’s image, depresses residents, hinders tourism, depletes the tax base, decimates property values and overall, harms resident’s quality of life. So why do we accept it? Certainly blight leads to apathy and people stop caring, but that’s not the full story. I have talked with a number of city leaders regarding downtown vacancy and they say they avoid tackling the issue out of concern for the owner or fear of stirring up a property rights fight. This is a poor argument and demonstrates a lack of courage. An owner that isn’t maintaining their property is the one that is creating the property rights issue. Their decision to neglect their building damages surrounding property and the city as whole. They are not required to maintain ownership, but if they do, they have an obligation to make sure the property does not deteriorate. So it is a property rights issue after all and the delinquent owner is the one violating them, not the city for enforcing them. For some reason we understand this with residential property, but have a problem making the same case for downtown commercial property.
As far as sympathy for the property owner goes, there should be absolutely none. So often these buildings have been passed down. The current owner has likely never spent a cent on the building and is content to collect what they can while it is still standing. When it burns, they can collect again. If it was purchased as an investment property, it doesn’t merit any more sympathy. These owners are pulling more and more money out of the downtown while putting nothing back in. A building operates the same as a business and if nothing is invested, nothing will be returned. Property owners cannot be allowed to bleed the last dollars out of these buildings until they reach a point when the cost to renovate exceeds the value of the building. This is where a community is complicit. We can’t stand by and watch these buildings melt into the street and assume it’s not going to do irreparable damage, or just hope it gets better. It won’t.
When downtown buildings begin to deteriorate and go vacant, a community is complicit for not stopping the decline. The cost is far, far too high to allow this rot to take hold and spread. All the tools are available for a community to combat vacancy and blight issues. Between stricter code enforcement, vacant property legislation, land banks, and more, there are so many ways to go about dealing with vacant property. There are certain extreme situations in significantly depressed communities where there are no buyers available at any price, but most cities are not in this situation. In most towns, when steps are taken, the problem lessens and the impacts are substantial. I recall the fire chief in Sandusky, Ohio telling me vacancy in their downtown was reduced by 60% in the first year of their vacant property registry. In a recent article in the New Yorker titled The Other Side of Broken Windows, regarding vacant property in Philadelphia “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.00 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested.” Noting that not only is it safer to address vacant property, but it also provides a huge cost savings.
Vacant property is the visible sign of community rot and in every instance leads to problems that aren’t as visible and are much harder to address. Downtown is the center of the city and the rot will only spread outwards if allowed to take hold. The issue of vacant property must be tackled head-on if there is any hope of turning around a struggling community and its economy. All the tools are available to city leaders to combat this issue and considering the cost, there are no excuses for inaction.
– Jeff Siegler