Are the empty homes the real problem?

A big benefit to not being part of a political machine with a staff doing it for you is walking door-to-door to collect signatures.  While doing so recently, it became quickly and painfully obvious how many homes in Dayton are now missing taxpayers.

Neighborhoods that were once “solid” now are starting to erode, with empty homes creating a sense of despair. With short sales, tax sales and foreclosures, we’re seeing a precipitous drop in home values. Soon, the incentive to invest in the good homes disappears as values drop.

We have an abundance of vacant housing in Dayton right now. It looks like Senator Brown thinks that tearing down inventory is the answer:

Nearly 21 percent of the housing in Dayton is vacant, according to Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is pushing a bill aimed at creating a grant program to demolish vacant housing, find new uses for old structures and create green space.

The proposal is broader than the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a new federal program administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows cities and counties to demolish or rehab vacant properties. This proposal, he said, is focused on encouraging cities and communities to develop plans to redevelop vacant lots.

The proposal, which Brown is pushing with U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, would target cities that have seen at least a 20 percent population loss since  1970 or have experienced prolonged population, job and income loss resulting in high levels of housing vacancy.

Dayton, for example, has seen a 32 percent population decrease between 1970 and 2000.

via Sen. Brown plan: Demolish vacant homes for new use.

Then we’ll have an abundance of vacant lots.

Vacant lots are not the answer.  You invest and reinvest in a home if you think it will appreciate, or if you love your home and/or  your neighborhood.   A society that feels safe in its investments, and comfortable in its respective neighborhood is more likely to be productive and pay taxes.  So how do we take the problem of vacant, neglected houses and turn it into better neighborhoods?

Here are a few ideas for the vacant homes dilemma other than wholesale tear down:

  • Bounty the homes for veterans: the State of Ohio is about to hand over checks to veterans who served in the war. Instead, give them these homes for free if they’re willing to rehabilitate them, with tax abatements and access to money to help rehabilitate them. Not just Ohio veterans, but all veterans. Free homes to military families would also help Dayton with population loss. And Dayton would lead the nation in showing sincere and tangible appreciation to our soldiers.
  • Mothball/Consolidation: I’m a big believer in building on strengths. If we filled the vacant homes in the stronger neighborhoods while closing down the weaker ones by offering incentives for people to move- and then mothballing or clearing larger tracts, it would make for a more efficient delivery of services. Instead of spending money tearing down and leaving a few homes standing, let’s provide incentives for people to move into places where they can have good neighbors instead of a vacant house or lot next door. The vacated homes can then be sold in packages to developers as is.
  • Immigrants: although we seem to think that increasing the number of available workers in a time of job shortages would be bad, the reality is that this country was built that way. Allowing highly skilled workers to emigrate to the U.S., with incentives for them to  live in areas that have vacant, available housing  and qualify as HUBzones (an SBA designation for Historically Underutilized Business Zones- that covers much of Dayton) can have huge economic impact. I spelled this out here: Crazy economic development idea. back in 2007.

Some homes are beyond salvation by normal “financial analysis”- my home, my office and my two cottages all fit that description when I bought them. Under Brown’s plan they would have all qualified for a tear down. Thanks to historic zoning protection, a neighborhood with heart, and low prices- they are all valuable assets.

Vacant homes or vacant lots? Both are vacant any measure of hope.

To people with vision and incentives, there are very few “bad houses” – what we have is a lack of creative problem solvers. I urge everyone to consider the ideas above- and let’s hear some of your ideas  in the comments.

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