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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17 Responses

  1. Gina March 13, 2009 / 3:50 pm
    LOVE these ideas. I totally agree that for neighborhoods already in trouble the last thing they need are random vacant lots. If houses are going to be torn down anyway, I agree that incentivizing people to move to certain areas that we want to stabalize while emptying decaying neighborhoods to have large usable open spaces is a great idea.

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  2. Greg Hunter March 13, 2009 / 6:06 pm
    Here is my idea shut down Wilmington Ohio and return it to Pig Farms

    Instead Ohio is going to do Aircraft Maintenance in Wilmington with taxpayer incentives. Brown is Business as Usual. When he gets the chance to get something done he goes for politics as usual.

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  3. Jeff March 14, 2009 / 8:57 am
    Dayton is going to lose a lot of its 19th century architectural patrimony via these demolition programs, and this would include commercial and retail buildings like old corner stores and commercial blocks as well as houses.

    This is a bigger deal than one thinks since there really aren’t many areas left that are predominantly 19th century, and it’s these areas that show the evolution of construction in Dayton as the local vernacular architecture got worked out by carpenters, housewrights, and contractors. In a way these are the neighborhoods that make Dayton distinctive and give the city some of its genus loci since they predated mass standarization and generic national housing styles. I could go on about this but its boring, so here are two links illustrating the problem as I see it:

    Here’s a mapping of the oldest housing in the city, which overlaps with high vacancy rates:
    The Last of 19th Century Dayton

    And how demolition and replacement construction is affecting one older neighborhood:
    East Dayton Ground Truth: Findlay

    To be honest, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I have no connection to the city, other than it being an intersting subject to study. So this is an outsiders POV.

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  4. David Lauri March 14, 2009 / 11:41 am
    Trying to consolidate Dayton’s population into certain neighborhoods and then doing demolition of other neighborhoods, creating larger areas of open space, is certainly worth a shot.

    Avoiding Detroitification, where occupied houses are spread all over the city amongst large areas of empty lots, would also be wise if possible.

    However, I don’t see the problem with having some vacant lots and think that such vacant lots should be offered to owners who live in neighboring houses. One of the attractions of suburban living is having a nice big yard, and this would be a way to offer that amenity to city homeowners. My mother and her next-door neighbors in the Oregon District own a lot between their houses on which they’ve made a very nice garden. That’s a plus, not a downside.

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  5. Maura McCormick March 14, 2009 / 12:52 pm
    Tearing down certain houses around the area could allow for the bike paths or roads in their place. Many of the side roads are not connected to each other and one has no choice but to take a much longer route, bike in a major road or not bike at all, and walking is usually not an option either in such places. Some areas, like those west of Wilmington Ave between Patterson Rd and Dorothy Lane, are completely impassible, and I suspect that it takes first responders considerably longer to respond to an emergency in these cases.

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  6. Maura McCormick March 14, 2009 / 12:56 pm
    I don’t know why the link to my Livable Streets group didn’t take. Here it is again Livable Dayton. I wish I had the option to preview and edit my posts.

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  7. David Esrati March 14, 2009 / 2:06 pm

    Hi Maura- if you register for the site- you should be able to edit your own comments if logged in as a subscriber.
    The idea of concentrating population is a build on strengths approach. Adding vacant lots to some neighborhoods makes no sense. We need to build community- not knock teeth out.

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  8. Info Guy March 15, 2009 / 1:27 am
    Check out the “Vacant to Vibrant” Town Hall meeting at the Convention Center on March 28. Admission and parking are free.

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  9. John C March 15, 2009 / 9:31 pm
    So David, which neighborhoods should be “closed down?”

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  10. Gene March 15, 2009 / 10:16 pm
    For the most part, the areas that have the most violent crime, imo. I like this idea, and give incentives for local builders to build modern, open floor plan homes that are greener, more cost effective, and allow a youthful feel to an old city. Rather than move to Kettering or Springboro, you could get an up-to-date home rather than move. But you still have the school problems, so good luck with that.

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  11. David Esrati March 15, 2009 / 11:40 pm

    @John C- We’d have to do some math and mapping- looking for the neighborhoods with the highest vacancy rates, lowest property values and then start doing some analysis. It may not be “neighborhoods” but blocks in a neighborhood at first. If you only have 2 families on a block and 10 empty homes, I’d say that it’s a good candidate for moving people and closing the street.

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  12. John C March 17, 2009 / 11:57 pm
    I’m having trouble with your National Stabilization Program link.

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  13. David Esrati March 18, 2009 / 2:01 am

    @john- link fixed- sorry.

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  14. Joe Lacey March 21, 2009 / 10:20 am
    “To be honest, I don’t really have a dog in this fight, since I have no connection to the city, other than it being an intersting subject to study.” Jeff, your level of interest aside, your blog provides the best demonstration of the irreplaceable asssets Dayton would lose under a mass demolition program.

    “My mother and her next-door neighbors in the Oregon District own a lot between their houses on which they’ve made a very nice garden.” David what you are pointing out is actually a pretty important fact that demolition proponents overlook. It’s likely that this vacant lot in the Oregon District was once a house that, had it survived into the 1970’s, would have been highly marketable as a good candidate for renovation.

    Vacant houses that are now considered eyesores could in better economic times be valuable as irreplaceable examples of 19th or early 20th century architecture. If we tear them down, we are creating vacant lots with no real marketable advantage in good or bad economic times.

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  15. David Lauri March 23, 2009 / 10:36 am
    “It’s likely that this vacant lot in the Oregon District was once a house that, had it survived into the 1970’s, would have been highly marketable as a good candidate for renovation.”

    Joe, if there’d be a house on the empty lot next to the house my mother bought, she wouldn’t have bought it. She moved to the Oregon District from the suburbs, where she had a yard. The fact that the house she bought also had a yard was what made the decision for her.

    Now it’s true that the house which formerly stood on her yard might have been a gem, and it’s true, that given its location in the Oregon District, there might have been two homebuyers to come along, one to buy the now-gone house and one to buy the house my mother would not have bought, but that’s not going to be true all over the city.

    It’s also true that if Esrati’s plan to consolidate Dayton’s population and to tear down larger areas of houses rather than houses here and there could work.

    However, I still say that it’s not the end of the world to strategically tear down houses in order to make yards available.

    Strategy is the key part of that. Tearing down houses willy nilly, leading to Detroitification, would be bad. So either follow the Esrati plan and only tear down entire neighborhoods, or follow the Lauri plan (hell, Lauri plan? I’m not running for office and never will) and tear down only a house here and there to make nice yards for remaining houses.

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  16. Jeff March 23, 2009 / 4:04 pm
    The sideyard concept is probably one of the more realistic proposals.

    Interboro Partners incorporated this concept (which they called the B-LOT) as part of their However Unspectacular exhibit, part of the Shrinking Cities traveling show. Interboro was using Detroit as an example, but their concepts are easily applied to Dayton.

    One of the problems with decommissioning entire neighborhoods is that there are always a few hold outs. You’d have to move them using eminent domain. Buy why would you? As long as their houses and yards are in good to fair shape, machts nichts if a few folks are living out on the urban prairie.

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  17. Teri Lussier March 26, 2009 / 9:33 am
    >You’d have to move them using eminent domain. Buy why would you? As long as their houses and yards are in good to fair shape, machts nichts if a few folks are living out on the urban prairie.

    You’d have to move everyone using eminent domain. I can’t even begin to imagine this program. I’m not arguing with the ideas, simply the idea of the government taking this on.

    And, okay, as a Realtor, I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around shuttering a neighborhood. Someone who just bought into that neighborhood a few years ago- at 24% more than they could get today, with a plan to hold that home for the next 10 years, is now going to get an eminent domain stipend?

    Oh no, David. Please. Don’t do that to this city. Some of us in this business work very hard to help people move where they want to move! Some of us in this area take the anti-steering laws very very seriously…. yeesh.

    I know I should have a better solution before I trash this one… I don’t. I share the frustration. I believe we are living in unprecedented times and the solutions are going to be unprecedented. I don’t know what to do, except to encourage people to be thoughtful about their decisions.

    Perhaps, giving neighborhoods the power to shutter themselves, rather than the govt doing it is one solution. One block at a time? I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

    I do know that people want to own homes. They want to own homes where they want to own homes, and they do it for a multitude of reasons. Revite plans work best when it’s organic and flows from the heart of people- like yourself- who make things happen. Perhaps, instead of shuttering blocks, an awareness campaign- that sounds so cheesy doesn’t it? A dialog- open, door-to-door dialog? I don’t know…

    Eventually, we are going to begin to see this in newer subdivisions in the suburbs. We do need to be proactive throughout the entire region… But I don’t know how to fix it.

    Vacant lots are not a horrible solution, though, and do keep the cost of shuttering homes to a minimum. That’s proactive, and good for the city right now. There is no shame in shrinking. Some of us actually like smaller cities, with big city stuff, and I do believe that Dayton has that, for now anyway. Vacant homes, abandoned homes, blighted homes, vandalized homes, all take an emotional toll on a neighborhood, an area, a region. I’d rather see lovely gardens than shuttered blocks. That’s good for the soul. Dayton could use some of that right now.

    I do love this post, though. It’s something I’ve been turning about in my own head for some time, without answers, unfortunately.

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