Vacancy Busting: A Step by Step Guide

February 24, 2021



I can sometimes get bogged down in the policies of vacancy. I get pretty excited about design standards, code enforcement and vacant property registries. I love reading about new methods people use internationally to combat empty property. While policy is tremendously important to solving one of the biggest problems most cities face, it overlooks politics. Without smart politics, the policy doesn’t matter, because it will never get passed. So I wanted to take this as a chance to provide people with more of a “how to” guide to getting vacant property legislation passed. 

Where to get started. 

It is safe to assume, you are already dealing with vacant property in your community. Everyone is. As cities have incentivized suburbia and abandoned standards downtown, most cities are plagued with vacancy. Vacancy is ugly, depressing, expensive, counter-productive and does irreparable damage when allowed to fester. So you know this is a problem, but you seem to be the only one. You aren’t. 

You are not the only one that is frustrated by vacant property. As much as we might like to think we are the only people that care about our community, or the only ones to realize these things are a problem, rarely is that the case. Certainly, not enough people care, and this is your opportunity. Because once they know what you know, your ranks will grow. 

Vacancy Army Assemble!  

Other people in your community are frustrated by vacancy- connect with them. The people that are most likely to be concerned with this issue are the ones dealing with it everyday. Start by talking with downtown business owners, talk with property owners that maintain their buildings, then connect with people that live on the streets right around downtown. These people are dealing with the effects of vacancy everyday, and they are experiencing the cost of these vacancies in their life and in their business. Reach out to them, explain that you want to lead an effort to do something about vacancy and you need a coalition. You don’t have to have all the answers yet, you just need numbers. You can accomplish this though flyers, through existing personal networks, or social media. Best use all three methods to try and connect with as many people as possible. You should have no problem identifying 20 people in your community that are negatively impacted and frustrated by vacancy. If only 10 of them are willing to meet, you have just enlisted your vacancy army. 

Meeting Minutes 

Don’t let the meeting slow you down. This is the start of a campaign, not the start of a new committee. When you are clear about this being a campaign focused around one single issue, you can move faster, garner more support and keep from getting bogged down in meetings. People will be asked to get involved, and when the campaign is over, they can step away. Easy.  For the first meeting, bring statistics about the cost of vacancy. Make an overwhelming case- that your community is being irreparably damaged by allowing property to sit empty and deteriorate. Make the case from the fiscal point of view, the emotional point of view, from a resident’s point of view, from a visitor’s point of view, etc. Lay out the case- that this one issue is doing untold harm to everyone in the community. 

Getting people fired up about the problem makes a solution far more likely. 

Strategize 

You have a team assembled around a campaign, now you have to develop a strategy. First, like any good campaign, you have to educate people on your issue. You must win people over to your side and help them understand why this issue is worth caring about. 

Pull together good information. Make your case. Take a look at your town’s vacant property situation. Place Economics has identified vacancy economics impact numbers that help lay out the cost of each vacant property to the municipality. Track down those numbers and apply them to the number of vacancies you have in your community. Consider how much each of those empty buildings costs your city. Look at the depressed property values, the rents going uncollected, the taxes going uncollected, the increase in crime, the impact on civic self-esteem, the damage to tourism, and the myriad of other ways an empty building hurts a community. Use those numbers to bring people into the campaign. You have a campaign team, utilize all of their skills. Design quality graphics, leverage the writers and social media folks. Get those numbers out, blast them on social, write letters to the editor, get the problem in front of everyone. 

And please, please, please, don’t overlook the most powerful tool in your shed, talk to the people you know. Truly, the simple face to face conversation is the most effective method you can use. Explain the issue to your sister, your neighbor, your best friend, tell them why it matters to you and what you aim to do. This is the best way to win new people over. People connect with people and we must remember this will always be our best strategy. Host a barbecue, and in the middle of it, stop, get up on your chair, and tell everyone you are working to solve a crisis in your city and you want their support. This is how you get things done, by leveraging personal connections around your passion. Ask them to donate there and then, ask them to show up to council, or write a letter or talk to their friends and family. You can build an army around a campaign idea just by talking with the people you know. 

Key Players 

Now that you have raised awareness in the community and built a coalition, you have to reach out to some key players to get them involved. Talk to people in the community that are trusted and sit in leadership positions. Many of them might be a bit ‘old school’ and think you should demolish everything, but not all of them. See who your allies are. It might be unfair, but often times we need people of prominence to speak out in favor of something. This builds momentum and gives council people a bigger reason to take notice. 

My favorite group to reach out to in this situation, is other downtown building owners. You will find that some owners have taken good care of their buildings, these people are the most powerful advocates for your message. When an existing building owner stands up in front of council and can say “I take care of my building and I am being financially punished by the cities refusal to enforce building codes” council members have to take a step back. Get the responsible property owners on your side early on, because your work will affect their wallets. 

Don’t forget the fire department. One group you will want to talk to through this process is the people over at the fire department. Every vacant building presents a huge risk to first responders and they have a vested interest in combatting this issue. When I worked with the city of Sandusky, Ohio Fire Department to address vacancies, the Fire Chief led the way. He did the research, composed an argument, and presented in front of council. He explained that his people were at risk by going into any unoccupied buildings and that it was long past due for the owners to burden the cost and not the rest of the community. Council does not want to be put in the position of risking the safety of the Fire Department, so the legislation was passed. 

Find Your Council Person 

Identify your go-to council person. Someone on council will have to be the champion for this cause and introduce the legislation. Ask all around and see who this person is most likely to be. Take them to coffee and pitch your case. Help them understand how they can be a hero by getting behind this important policy. Your coalition can do all the work, they just have to introduce the legislation and push it through council. Someone on council will be persuadable, someone will want to victory, find them and win them over. 

Policy 

Now you will need to figure out what policy you want passed. There are a lot of tools available to your city. You can go simple and just push the city to start enforcing codes that are likely already on the books. You can advocate for new building codes, minimum maintenance ordinances or a demolition by neglect ordinance. Some cities have turned the real estate tax model on its head by using something called the land value tax. The more intensely you use the real estate, economically speaking, the lower the taxes and vice versa. So a parking lot would be taxed at a higher rate than a 3 story mixed use building. My favorite though, is the vacant property registry. 

Vacant Property Registries

I have worked with a number of communities to pass this legislation and I have found it the most effective. The owner of any vacant property is required to sign a registry, once the law is put in place. This registry comes with a fee that owner has to pay to administer the program. In signing the registry, the property owner is required to have their building in compliance with all city ordinances and the building will be toured on a regular basis by local officials to prove this. The property owner will also be required to provide access to the building in a timely manner. Each year the building remains vacant, the owner must re-register the property and in most every case, the registration fee doubles. 

The only effective means to motivate certain property owners is by hitting them where it hurts. 

Show up

So let’s say you have navigated all of the above steps. You have identified your tribe of vacant property haters. You got together to come up with a community education strategy. You won over hundreds in the community and they realize why this issue really does matter. You even got some prominent local leaders on your team and they spoke out on this issue as well. You identified your council champion and they are ready to propose a solution. You have done nearly everything you can to address this issue. Now you have to get your people out. 

When it comes time for your council person to bring this piece of legislation to the floor, you and your campaign team, and everyone else you can get out, must be present at council. You have to demonstrate overwhelming support for your policy. If you can bring 40 people to council to show support for the proposed legislation, you will send the biggest message to council. This matters, it shows the community cares and that something needs done. 

Summary 

We have all gotten the habit of seeing something we don’t like and saying to ourselves “something needs to be done.” Let’s stop saying this and change those words to “what can I do?” The first statement is passive and no one has any responsibility, but rethinking that in terms of our own responsibility makes all the difference. Because you can do something. It only takes one person to get the ball rolling and to make a difference. You are not alone, no matter what your concern is, other people in your community feel the same and are waiting for someone like you to get things started, someone like you to speak up, someone like you to take a stand. So what can you do? Everything, is the answer. 


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