Abandoned Buildings:
Models for Legislative & Enforcement Reform

Prepared by: Mark Setterfield·Associate Professor of Economics
Trinity College·Hartford, CT 06106·(860)297-2132

Prepared for:

Trinity Center for Neighborhoods
190 New Britain Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106-3100
Maria Simao, Project Director
Research Project 23
March, 1997


1. Introduction

2. The Problem
i) Defining the Concept of Urban Blight and Abandonment
ii) Why Are Abandoned Buildings a Problem?

3. Tackling the Abandoned Building Problem
i) Why Is the Problem Difficult to Solve?
ii) Anti-Blight Ordinances in Hartford and New Britain
iii) Some Alternative Solutions

4. Conclusions


We would like to thank, without implicating, the following individuals for their help in the preparation of this report: Abe Ford, Bob Kanto, Mary Ellen Morgan, John Salvetti, Michael Swack, Greg Vickers, and Georgette Yaindel.

1. Introduction

It would take very little to convince a visitor to, much less a resident of, any of America's cities that there exists an abandoned building problem. Even the most cursory glance at the central urban environs of cities such as Hartford and New Britain reveals a preponderance of burned out or boarded up buildings and vacant lots. Meanwhile, residents of neighborhoods blighted by abandoned buildings complain of a variety of economic and social problems connected with commercial and residential structures that have fallen into disuse and disrepair. As the examples of Hartford and New Britain attest, these problems are by no means confined to larger metropolitan centres; the phenomenon of the small city with "big city problems" is very much a part of the urban landscape of contemporary America.

The problem of urban decay - of which the abandonment of buildings is a prominent and highly visible symptom - and the desire to do something about this problem is not new. This is easily demonstrated without developing a thorough history of the issue. For example, in 1953, The Presidents Advisory Committee on Housing recommended a program to "... remove houses and clear areas of our cities which are beyond recall" and "restore to sound condition all dwellings worth saving" (quoted in Nash and Colean, 1959, p.1). Furthermore, the origins of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1965 lay, in part, in the conviction of then President Lyndon Johnson that "[t]he modern city can be the most ruthless enemy of the good life, or it can be its servant ... In our time, two giant and dangerous forces are converging on our cities: the forces of growth and decay" (quoted in Nenno, 1996, p.4). It is not surprising, then, to find that HUD's original mission statement from the mid 1960s "... encompassed ... a special focus on renewing the declining areas in large cities ..." (Nenno, 1996, p.5).

It would therefore appear that, even during the period of rapid economic expansion and rapidly rising living standards that characterized the post war era prior to 1973, we can find a concern with the state of American cities and, in particular, with the state of buildings located in these cities. This is not altogether surprising; buildings inevitably deteriorate (and may subsequently be abandoned) as they age, unless they are maintained. Indeed, according to Nash and Colean (1959, p.3), the very existence of structures which are hundreds of years old in all of the world's cities bears testimony to the concern that has been shown throughout the ages with the need to rehabilitate deteriorating buildings. However, it would be unwise to thinks of the contemporary problem of abandonment as being nothing more than the continuance of an age old dilemma. Rather, it must be recognized that the problem is now situated in the context of urban environments that have undergone substantial change over the last two or three decades. According to Nenno (1996, 55-64), it is possible to identify five broad dimensions of urban change in America since the 1960s:

a) Shifts in population - major urban centres have lost population over the last three decades. However, they experienced population growth during the 1980s, to which foreign immigration made a significant contribution.

b) Housing problems - declining populations prior to 1980 and declining economic fortunes have resulted in the abandonment, destruction or conversion to commercial use of many urban housing units. Lack of adequate or affordable housing is now a problem, even as the trend towards abandonment continues. 1

c) Obsolete infrastructure - the highways, bridges, sewer systems etc. in many American cities are obsolete (and in some cases unsafe) and in need of renovation.

d) Poverty and social ills - poverty is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, as are other social ills such as crime, drug abuse and unplanned teenage pregnancies. Poverty is also concentrated within certain urban neighborhoods, which themselves tend to be clustered.

e) Declining political influence - cities have lost political influence as their populations and hence numbers of registered voters have declined.

It is impossible to dissociate the contemporary problem of abandoned buildings from the trends discussed above. This must be borne in mind when we discuss the nature of the abandoned building problem, and whenever we attempt to assess the desirability and efficacy of proposed solutions to this problem.

The discussion that ensues characterizes the nature of the abandoned building problem as it currently affects cities such as Hartford and New Britain, and proposes a number of schemes designed to redress this problem. In section 2, the concepts of urban blight and abandonment are defined, and the problems caused by abandoned buildings are discussed. Section 3 begins by discussing economic and legal difficulties associated with solving the abandoned building problem. This is followed by a review of current anti-blight ordinances in Hartford and New Britain, and a discussion of possible new and alternative strategies for dealing with abandoned buildings drawn from the experiences of other American towns and cities. Finally, section 4 offers some conclusions.

2. The Problem

i) Defining the concepts of urban blight and abandonment
The term "urban blight" can be associated with a variety of problems which are themselves connected with the ongoing decay of American inner cities. These problems include crime, suburban flight, the diminution of economic opportunities, unsafe public spaces, drug problems and so forth. Frequently, however, urban blight is used in specific reference to the properties of which a city is comprised and their abandonment. In either case, of course, the notion of "blight" has obvious negative connotations. In particular, it is suggestive of a problem that tends to spread over time. Urban blight is transmitted through vicious circles in which urban decay leads to social changes (in behavior, the economic base, etc.) which then result in further decay. This should immediately lead us to realize that when addressing urban blight, the issue at hand is that of arresting an ongoing process of cumulative decline, not just amending a stock of outstanding ills. Successful remediation requires that this process of cumulative decline be replaced with a self-sustaining "virtuous circle", in which the interaction between economic activity and social behavior on the one hand, and a city's physical infrastructure on the other, becomes mutually beneficial.

If we take urban blight to refer to the abandonment of property, then two further questions arise: what does abandonment mean?; and, what type of properties are we considering? There is no unique definition of abandonment. In the National Urban League and the Center for Community Change's 1971 study of abandonment in seven American cities, abandonment refers to structures on which taxes and mortgages are no longer paid, and for which services are neither paid for nor provided (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 437-8). A second study from 1971 by the private consulting firm, Linten, Mields and Cottane defines abandonment in terms of buildings that are unoccupied, vandalized, boarded-up, deteriorated or those which have unmaintained grounds (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 438). More recently, O'Flaherty (1993, 45) has suggested that abandonment can mean an owner ceasing to provide maintenance and operating services to a building, or the loss of an owners legal right to a building, or the demolition of a building. For current purposes, it is useful to think of abandonment as referring to any of the phenomena listed above.

This leaves the issue of determining what type of properties should be considered when addressing the problem of abandonment. For some purposes, it is useful to consider a broad variety of property types, as in the concept of Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites or TOADS, developed by Greenberg and others (1990, 1993). TOADS are "scattered, random unused parcels of land of varying size and shape. Some have abandoned structures; others are only empty lots. They are no longer used productively, or they never were" (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 435). TOADS include residential, commercial, and industrial properties — examples such as warehouses, residential structures (single and multi-family), railway lines, landfills, and overgrown, underdeveloped land are illustrative of the concept. The idea of TOADS is useful because it draws attention not only to highly visible aspects of abandonment, such as boarded-up or burned-out dwelling units, but also to easily overlooked aspects of the problem, such as so-called "infill land" (vacant parcels of land which are surrounded by urban development and which are already served by utilities) (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 438).

Most research into TOADS in America, however, has focused on the problem of residential abandonment (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 437). This is not surprising, given that most abandoned properties are either residential structures or else vacant lots on which residential buildings formerly stood (O'Flaherty, 1993, 45). Furthermore, many of the most pressing contemporary urban problems — such as the concentration of poverty, homelessness, and the grip of the drug trade in certain neighborhoods — can all be associated, in some way or other, with abandoned residential structures. Despite the importance of the TOADS concept for overall urban development and renewal, then, much of what follows will focus exclusively on problems associated with, and proposed solutions to, the phenomena of abandoned residential structures.

ii) Why are abandoned buildings a problem?
As intimated in the introduction, it takes little by way of imagination to begin to understand the problems created by abandoned buildings, or how these problems are exacerbated as abandoned buildings cluster within certain neighborhoods. More systematic studies of abandonment confirm the intuition that abandoned buildings are associated with a variety of social, economic and environmental ills. The chief amongst these problems are:

a) Wasted resources and lost tax revenues — abandoned residential structures are a waste of resources. This waste is particularly cruel when the scarcity of affordable housing is an important issue for some sections of the community, as it is in the case of groups such as the homeless. At the same time, abandonment involves lost tax revenues for the community as a whole.

b) Declining property values — economic losses, both private and public, are not confined to abandoned structures themselves. Abandonment affects other properties within a neighborhood by lowering property values (Greenberg et. al., 1993, 436). The importance of this issue is attested by the fact that, in the past, whole studies have been devoted to the economics of rehabilitating buildings so as to increase the value of rents and property selling prices (see, for example, Nash and Colean, 1953).

c) Effects on community and neighborhood aesthetics — abandoned buildings have a negative impact upon social as well as purely economic aspects of well being. First, abandoned buildings are often unattractive. At best, as when a building has been raised, abandonment makes no positive aesthetic contribution to a neighborhood. At worst, abandoned buildings are eyesores. Their grounds become unkempt and overgrown, while the buildings themselves become dilapidated through lack of maintenance. Abandoned buildings are frequently boarded-up or worse still, become burnt-out shells. In any event, they bring no aesthetic pleasure to the residents of neighborhoods in which they are located.

Abandoned buildings can also have an insidious effect on the social fabric of a community, by encouraging "social atomization" — a process which isolates the individual (or individual family) within a community, weakening ties to others and, hence, the sense of collectivity which is the hallmark of any thriving community. In the first place, social atomization can arise because, as abandoned buildings cluster, individuals can become literally — i.e. geographically — isolated, separated from one another by vacant lots and uninhabitated structures. Secondly, social atomization is encouraged by the perception — which, as will be explained below, is well founded — that abandoned buildings and their environs are unsafe areas. Fearful of anti-social and criminal behavior, residents are encouraged to curtail their normal social interaction and associations. This is not only a loss in and of itself; also social atomization may foster exactly the sort of anti-social and criminal behaviors that it initially is a response to. Hence, "[a]s citizens withdraw physically, they also withdraw from roles of mutual support with fellow citizens on the streets, thereby relinquishing the social controls they formerly helped to maintain within the community" (Kelling and Coles, 1996, 20). Thus the initial breakdown of community ties fosters their further disintegration.

Finally, abandoned buildings may foster a sense of despondency and resignation that detracts from the vitality of a community. Kelling and Coles (1996) argue that buildings which fall into disrepair and remain dilapidated are interpreted as a signal that no one cares. This may even prompt the belief that further damage to or destruction of property is essentially costless. Wallwork (1974, 295), in his study of derelict land in Britain, identifies a "derelict land mentality." Sufferers of this mentality come to "accept their depressing surrounding as an inevitable consequence of industrial growth" (Greenberg et.al., 1990, 440), displaying an apathy to their environment which is borne less of calculated indifference than of a helpless sense that "larger forces" are dictating the course of events.

d) Impact on public health and safety — in their study of TOADS in the fifteen largest cities in the United States, Greenberg and others (1990) find that amongst public officials, the most frequently raised concerns about abandonment include issues connected with public health and safety. First, abandoned buildings are often used as garbage dumps (see also Wallwork, 1974), and are plagued by rodent infestation. Clearly this has undesirable connotations for the breeding and transmission of disease. Second, abandoned buildings often create toxic waste hazards. This is especially likely in the case of abandoned industrial structures. It also may be important in connection with abandoned residential structures which contain lead paint and/or asbestos. Abandoned residences, furthermore, may house industrial and/or domestic chemicals (paints, solvents, cleaning materials, etc.) that have not been properly disposed. Finally, abandoned buildings are fire safety hazards. This is partly due to their condition (faulty wiring and debris are conducive to rapid ignition), partly due to the uses to which they are put (the growing number of homeless people who seek shelter in abandoned buildings may light fires inside in an effort to keep warm) and partly because they are targets for arson. Statistically, higher rates of fires in abandoned buildings have been documented in studies such as Sternlieb and other's (1974), who found that in Newark, New Jersey in 1971, ten percent of all fires and twenty percent of the most severe fires occurred in abandoned buildings.

e) Promotion of illegal activity — studies show that abandoned buildings are magnets for crime. First, they provide centres for the pursuit of a range of criminal activities, including prostitution, the consumption and trafficking of drugs, and crimes against property. Evidence of this is found in Spelman's (1993) study of 59 abandoned residential buildings in a low-income Austin, Texas neighborhood. Of these buildings, 34% were being used for illegal activities. Of the 41% of buildings that were unsecured, some 83% were being used for illegal activities (Spelman, 1993, 488-9).

Greenberg and other's (1990) study of TOADS in the 15 largest American cities finds that vacant buildings are frequently used as crack houses, and cites the use of TOADS as locales for drug dealing as one of the most prominent social ills associated with abandonment. According to Spelman (1993, 488), abandoned buildings are ideal places to trade, conceal, and consume drugs. Activity within them is rarely visible from the street, while police officers are reluctant to enter abandoned buildings for legal reasons, because of general uncertainty and the possibility of danger and because of the low probability of a worthwhile payoff (i.e. slight chance of making an arrest). Evidence of drug use was found in 19% of the abandoned buildings in Spelman's study.

Spelman (1993, 488-9) also finds evidence of sexual activity and prostitution in 20% of the buildings in his study, and evidence of two different types of crimes against property. First, almost all of the unsecured buildings in Spelman's study are found to have been plundered by trespassers. Copper piping and wire, appliances, carpets and furniture are favorite targets. Second, 8% of the buildings in the study are found to be housing goods — ranging from wallets to lawn furniture to bicycles — stolen elsewhere.

Abandoned buildings are not just centres where illegal activities are conducted. They also provide meeting places where offenders who perpetrate crimes elsewhere can gather, meet and plan their activities. Spelman (1993, 482) suggests that abandoned buildings are well suited for this purpose because they physically shield criminals from the attention of outsiders. He even argues that, used as meeting places, abandoned buildings might actually foster and exacerbate criminal tendencies. This occurs as the lack of the usual social surveillance mechanisms erodes the self -control of those who meet there, while promoting group cohesion and the illusion of invulnerability. A clear association between abandoned buildings and neighborhood crime rates emerges from Spelman's (1993, 489) study. City blocks blighted by unsecured abandoned buildings were found to suffer crime rates (including cases of drug, theft, and violent crimes) that were twice as high as those found in "control blocks" characterized by the absence of abandoned residences. Of course, this is not definitive proof that abandonment fosters criminal activity — perhaps the crime pre-dated and actually caused the abandonment, rather than the other way around. This possibility must be taken seriously because of the evidence that crime causes abandonment in Newman (1980, chapter 4). Spelman (1993, 491) argues, however, that the "crime causes abandonment" thesis is not consistent with the qualitative features of the pattern of abandonment observed in Austin, Texas during the later 1980s. For example, abandoning owners were largely absentee landlords not local residents, who were responding to plummeting real estate prices throughout the region, not block specific characteristics such as crime rates. This provides some indication that the association between abandonment and neighborhood crime rates in Spelman's study is, indeed, explained by the notion that abandonment causes crime.

f) The encouragement of further abandonment — it is worth emphasizing once again that abandonment is an ongoing process — the initial abandonment of some buildings may create conditions that lead to the subsequent abandonment of others. In the first place, the preceding discussion clearly shows that abandonment is associated with deteriorating economic and social conditions within blighted neighborhoods. These conditions are likely to encourage further abandonment by residents, merchants and landlords, which will exacerbate economic and social distress, and so on. Furthermore, as noted above, abandonment has a negative impact on local government tax revenues. If only for this reason, city governments may decrease the provision of fire and police services to blighted urban areas (Greenberg et. al., 1993, 65). In this way, abandonment by private property owners may ultimately result in a second form of "abandonment," this time by the public sector. The deterioration of fire and police services is only likely to exacerbate the crime and public health and safety problems associated with abandonment.

3. Tackling the Abandoned Buildings Problem

i) Why is the problem difficult to solve?
Given that abandonment is not a new problem, one might be given to wonder why it nevertheless remains a problem — in other words, why it is such a difficult problem to solve? Of course, the economic and social impact of abandoned buildings is not distributed evenly throughout society. Even urban populations are not affected equally; the tendency of abandoned buildings to cluster in certain blighted neighborhoods is testimony to the fact that some urban dwellers are more affected by abandonment than others. As such, it is quite reasonable to contemplate that part of the reason that abandonment remains to be a problem due to a lack of political will on the part of society as a whole to attach high priority to tackling the problem. Unless we are to assume that those who are indirectly affected or unaffected by abandoned buildings are as concerned about abandonment as those directly affected , or else that those directly affected wield some particular influence within the political system, it would be naive indeed to simply assume that a basic political willingness to tackle earnestly the problem of abandonment exists throughout the general population. Part of the problem may well be that many voters perceive abandonment as someone else's problem and, therefore, do not care about the issue.

Political and social preferences aside, however, there remain a number of economic and legal obstacles to public efforts designed to tackle the problem of abandonment. First and foremost, the social problems caused by abandoned buildings emanate from privately owned property; the state cannot, under a system of private property ownership, simply tell owners what to do with their property, much less assume responsibility for it themselves. Of course, it has been the purpose of anti-blight legislation to confront this "social costs and public demands versus private ownership" dilemma. This legislation is reviewed in detail below. The difficulties, however, that confront anti-blight legislation in practice merely serve to confirm that the entrenched problems resulting from the public sphere/private sphere dichotomy surround the phenomenon of abandonment.

Legal problems are compounded by economic problems. Owners of abandoned buildings may be unwilling to part with their property, even through recognized market mechanisms. According to Adams et. al.'s (1988) study of vacant inner-city land in Manchester, England, an important constraint on the re-development of abandoned sites is the un-willingness of owners to part with their property at other than relatively high prices. Unrealistic expectations concerning the value of property are, according to Adams and others, a more significant barrier to the spontaneous re-development of abandoned property within the private sector than any regulatory restrictions imposed by local government planning authorities.

The demolition of abandoned buildings also poses economic problems, not least because demolition itself is costly. This is particularly so when hazardous waste removal becomes an issue. Although this problem might appear to affect the demolition of industrial and commercial structures rather more than residential structures, it can affect the latter as, for example, when a housing unit contains asbestos or lead-paint. Demolishing abandoned buildings is also problematic for local governments because it involves a loss of potential tax revenue. It might also be noted that regardless of the direct and indirect costs of demolition, simply taking abandoned buildings down does not solve the problem of abandonment. Instead, it only begs the further question as to what, if anything, of positive social and economic value, will replace the abandoned structure once it has been removed.

In view of these issues, it is not difficult to see why the problem of abandonment is entrenched. This conclusion notwithstanding , the purpose of the following section is to consider some possible avenues for addressing and combating the abandoned building problem. Section 3 (ii) examines traditional anti-blight ordinances, with special focus on their use in Hartford and New Britain. Section 3 (iii) proposes a variety of alternative solutions.

ii) Anti-Blight Ordinances in Hartford and New Britain
Many cities — including both Hartford and New Britain — have attempted to address the problem of abandoned buildings by instituting anti-blight ordinances. Broadly speaking, the purpose of these ordinances is to identify blighted properties and to encourage owners to remedy the situation by means of the issuance of official notices and, in some cases, by levying fines. Ultimately, anti-blight ordinances provide for the possession and/or demolition of blighted buildings or structures by city governments. While anti-blight ordinances provide a means by which local authorities can attempt to remedy outstanding cases of abandonment and blight, they are no doubt also intended to deter abandonment in the first place, by making the latter costly and/or embarrassing for the owner.

As intimated above, both Hartford and New Britain have used anti-blight ordinances in an attempt to remedy urban blight. New Britain's anti-blight ordinances are relatively new, dating only from 1995. Hartford's experience with anti-blight ordinances dates back to the late 1980s, but in June 1996, these ordinances were repealed in their entirety. The City of Hartford is presently without any explicit anti-blight program as a result.

Comparing the current anti-blight ordinances in New Britain with the ordinance formerly employed by Hartford, it is clear that both are essentially similar in their structure and intent. 2 Blighted premises are defined as having been vacant for 60 days, and satisfying at least one of a variety of conditions. These conditions include the possibilities that the premises have become a fire hazard, are attracting illegal activity, are causing a serious depreciation of property values in the surrounding area and so forth. In Hartford, "blighted premises" referred strictly to buildings or structures, whereas in New Britain, the ordinance currently defines blighted premises to include any building, structure or parcel of land. 3 Both ordinances allow for the reporting of blighted premises by any individual, civic organization or municipal agency, and subsequent action can be taken against the owner of the reported premises. This action first includes notifying the owner in writing of his/her violation of the anti-blight ordinances, according to which it is illegal to create or maintain blighted premises. A period of thirty (30) days is allowed, during which the owner can voluntarily correct the violation. Should the situation go uncorrected, fines can be levied for each additional day the owner is deemed to be in violation of the ordinance. 4 Furthermore, mechanisms exist that permit the eventual repair, purchase and/or demolition of the property by the relevant local authority. Provision is also made in both ordinances for appeal by the owner at various stages of the decision-making process.

It is clear that even proponents of local government involvement in remedying urban blight have not been entirely satisfied with the performance of anti-blight ordinances. In February 1996, a special edition of the Blighted Properties Update, published by the Citizen's Research Education Network, Inc. (CREN) of Hartford, found that 5% of Hartford's residential buildings (571 properties) were abandoned. However, only 26.3% of the 571 abandoned properties were active cases in the City's anti-blight program. It also was found that since 1989, only 60 properties had been renovated as a result of Hartford's anti-blight ordinances. Not surprisingly, the report concluded:

it is clear that the City's Anti-Blight process has not been able to keep pace with the growth of residential property abandonment. Although the process does appear to work as a monitoring tool to report on the status of some abandoned properties, and has demonstrated success in bringing owners, the City and Community together to bring some properties back to life, it appears as though this is simply not enough. (Blighted Properties Update, February 1996: 6)

However, the Blighted Properties Update does call attention to a number of constructive ideas for amending Hartford's anti-blight program, several of which are drawn from the experience of the City of Rochester, New York. These recommendations may appear moot in light of Hartford's subsequent decision to repeal its anti-blight ordinance. It is important, however, to bear in mind that, should political sentiment in Hartford change in the future, and should a "second generation" anti-blight program emerge, there are lessons to be learned from constructive criticisms of the previous program such as those outlined below. Additionally, several of CREN's proposals are of immediate relevance to the fledgling anti-blight program in New Britain. The following are of particular importance:

a) Incidence of fines — fines in Hartford were levied for each day that a property was found to violate the City's anti-blight ordinance. A similar procedure has been adopted in New Britain. CREN, however, found that his procedure can result in owners being fined simply because their properties were vacant. CREN recommends eliminating the per diem fines in favor of a system of tickets, issued by police officers or housing code and health inspectors, specifically for failure to maintain, secure, and clean-up a property. These tickets might be written up for different degrees of violation, with fines doubling or tripling if unpaid within a set period of time.

b) Enforcement of Fines — Hartford's attempts to collect from property owners the various fines and costs associated with securing and cleaning up properties involved the placing of liens on properties. Similar procedure has been adopted in New Britain. According to CREN, however, this makes it almost impossible to collect fines because such liens are given low priority as compared with tax and mortgage arrears. Their recommendation is that fines be added to the taxes due on a property. This makes the financial burden more pressing for owners and, if the experience of Rochester, New York is anything to go by, improves the deterrence aspect of anti-blight programs by raising the rate at which owners comply with orders to rectify blighted properties.

c) Include vacant lots in the definition of blighted premises — as noted earlier, the Hartford ordinance defined blighted property in terms of buildings and structures. This ignores the contribution to urban blight made by vacant lots, which become overgrown and may even health hazards if they are used as garbage dumps that subsequently attract vermin. It is encouraging, in light of this problem, to note that New Britain's definition of blighted premises includes both buildings and structures and parcels of land.

(iii) Some Alternative Solutions
When considering potential solutions to the abandoned buildings problem, a variety of schemes other than anti-blight ordinances are worth considering. In part, this is true because anti-blight ordinances are only designed to confront a particular stage of the blight process. Specifically, although anti-blight programs may discourage some abandonment altogether due to the disincentive effect of fines, they are largely designed to react to abandonment after the event. But a concerted attempt to deal with urban blight ought to involve schemes especially designed to discourage abandonment in the first place. Furthermore, as noted earlier, the securing, possession or even demolition of abandoned buildings by local authorities under the auspices of anti-blight programs leaves begging the question of subsequent urban re-development. But any, a systematic attempt to address the problem of blight must be alive to programs designed to promote urban growth and renewal. The purpose of this section, then, is to draw attention to a variety of schemes other than anti-blight ordinances which may be of interest to any party seriously concerned with the problems of abandonment. It should be noted, however, that by no means are all of the following schemes substitutes for anti-blight ordinances. Some may be of greatest use acting in concert with anti-blight programs, while others are strictly complementary to anti-blight ordinances, in the sense that they clearly pre-suppose the existence of some mechanism for local government intervention in the maintenance or even the ownership of blighted properties.

a) Transferring property ownership to the community — A number of programs exist for transferring the ownership of blighted properties to members of the community in which the properties are located.5

1. The Community-household model: Between 1983 and 1985, Levitt and Saegert (1988) conducted a study of tenants in buildings in New York City sold through city-developed programs that emerged from a sharp increase in landlord-abandoned property. As early as the 1960s, New York City began assuming the ownership and management of buildings abandoned by tax-delinquent landlords. 6 To cope with the large increase in abandoned buildings, the City created two housing bureaucracies: the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the New York Housing Authority. In an effort to transfer ownership into the hands of tenants, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development created the Division of Alternative Management Programs (DAMP). Under DAMP, three major programs emerged: the Tenant-Interim Lease program (TIL), the Community Management Program (CMP), which seeks to transfer ownership to community-based organizations, and the Private Ownership and Management Program (POMP), which transfers ownership to private landlords whose past management practices are screened by the city.

Levitt and Saegart (1988) make the following observations on the functioning of these programs between 1983 and 1985:

Tenant-Interim Lease program (TIL) — one-half of the buildings purchased from the City went to tenant associations under the TIL program. Under this program, tenant-initiated cooperatives received subsidies between $3000 and $5000 per unit. Each tenant then agreed to pay $250 to purchase their apartment as a share in the cooperative. Part of the agreement prevents future speculative sales preserving the housing for low and moderate income people. These tenant-owned buildings normally consisted of 30 apartments.

Community Management Program (CMP) — subsidies for community-based organizations averaged $25,000 per unit, while the average building contained 16 units.

Private Ownership and Management Program (POMP) — private landlords received between $5000 and $7000 subsidies and generally tended to own buildings with 50 or more units.

Levitt and Saegert focus only on tenant-initiated ownership which generally took the form of cooperatives "because they represented the most direct form of tenant control [and were] the largest and least expensive of the Alternative Management programs." TILs, moreover, "provided an unusual example of inexperienced, low income people saving buildings that neither the private nor the public sector wanted" (1988, 491). Interviews with tenants in TIL-initiated cooperatives conducted between 1983 and 1985 led Levitt and Saegert (1988, 493) to conclude that successful cooperatives seem to conform to a model they call the Community-Household Model. Seven key factors become operant at different levels of organization:

Household level:

  • Residents apply to building and neighborhood conditions the domestic skills learned within the home, including budgeting, managing, and resolving conflicts.

Building-block level:

  • Social relations between friends, neighbors, and block relatives comprise a nonmonetary exchange of goods and services that acts as a first line of defense in times of housing crisis.
  • Indigenous leaders emerge in response to crises, influencing organizational structure and participation; the structure emerges for identifying priorities, allocating resources, making decisions, resolving conflicts, and planning for the future affects the possibility of community-households.

Building/community level:

  • Positive memories of the building and community encourage people. Communities try to organize for the future; memories are passed on from one generation to the next. Attachment to place anchors people in their buildings and neighborhoods, and shores up commitment to working cooperatively for a supportive environment.

Community level:

  • Community resources such as churches, housing organizations, and technical assistance groups complement and supplement tenants' resources from the first stages of organizing against abandonment to formalizing tenants' associations to assuming self-management and cooperative ownership.
  • Building outward from the resources and social and emotional ties of households and communities creates links to places and opportunities outside the immediate environment.

City level:

  • Public programs and laws connect emerging community-households to the resource allocation process of the broader society, determine their legal standing, and convey social legitimacy. 7

2. Community-Based Organizations: As in the study conducted by Levitt and Saegert (1988) discussed above, evidence collected by Oppenheim and Sierra (1994) suggests that integral to governmental-led mechanisms for preventing and rehabilitating abandoned buildings are Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). Each of the CBOs examined by Oppenheim and Sierra formed under conditions specific to certain locales within New York City. For example, the Oceanhill-Brownsville Tenant Association formed "primarily to improve housing conditions for residents" of Oceanhill-Brownsville while the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council "rose in response to the city's redevelopment efforts after the 1977 blackout...it gradually expanded to organizing buildings...[and] eventually the group moved into housing management and development" (Oppenheim and Sierra, 1994, 172-3). The success of these CBOs depends, in part, on programs outlined above such as the Tenant-Interim-Lease Program (TIL). Apart from the programs discussed above, Oppenheim and Sierra (1994) describe two others that are relevant to their discussion of blight remediation:

The 7-A Program — tenants living in any building whose maintenance is being continually deferred can have the building put into the hands of a receiver. Often a CBO acts as receiver. Oppenheim and Sierra (1988, 182) add, however, that the "burden of maintaining and running the buildings is complicated by difficulties getting tenants to pay their rents and the scarcity of funds to do the necessary repairs." Nevertheless, the 7-A program is an "important line of defense to keep buildings from being abandoned" (Oppenheim and Sierra, 1994, 183).

The Code Enforcement Program — this program operates as part of New York City's Housing Maintenance Code and is that part of the code responsible for ensuring public safety, responding to complaints of a lack of heat and hot water, or even lead-paint hazards. Inspectors hired by the Program investigate complaints.

b) Distressed Properties Investment Program — CREN's Blighted Properties Update (February 1996: 4-5) proposes a Distressed Properties Investment Program (DPIP) to arrest the deterioration of decaying residential properties. This would involve identifying currently occupied, rental residential structures that are in a state of distress, and diverting financial and technical resources to them in an effort to prevent their further decline and, possibly, their eventual abandonment. 8

c) Land Value Taxation — the idea of Land Value Taxation (LVT) is a simple and, as the experience of cities such as Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suggests, an effective way of encouraging urban development and discouraging abandonment simply by shifting the burden of property taxes. The principal aim of LVT is to orient property taxes towards taxing the value of land (based on its calculated rental value) rather than taxing the value of improvements — such as buildings — to that land. The idea is to ensure that the burden of taxation falls on property owners regardless of whether or not they make good or bad use of their land. This creates an incentive to improve land — to maintain and/or to develop buildings — in an effort to ensure that it is used productively, rather than to allow potential income generating structures to fall into disrepair and disuse. 9 LVT may even involve assessing vacant land at a higher rate of taxation than improved land in order to further enhance incentives for improvement. Proponents of LVT argue that shifting property taxes away from buildings is also likely to reduce residential and commercial rents and stimulate construction activity. Consequently, LVT may not only help arrest urban blight, but also may contribute to the reversal of this process by stimulating new development. There is, moreover, some evidence to support these claims. Oates and Schwab (1995) examine the impact of Pittsburgh's decision, in 1979-80, to tax land at a rate more than five times higher than the tax on structures. They find that Pittsburgh subsequently experienced a construction boom that greatly exceeded increases in building activity in other cities within the region. While the scarcity of commercial space in Pittsburgh during the 1980s is found to be the main factor behind this dramatic construction boom, LVT was found to have played an important supporting role.

d) Tax Increment Financing — urban blight is a costly problem to remedy, which raises the important issue of how efforts to address blight might be financed. It is useful in this connection to discuss Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a method of raising finance for public development projects that has been employed by many local governments since the 1970s. Proponents of TIF argue that it can be used to finance the re-development of blighted areas, the construction of low and moderate income housing, and projects generally designed to stimulate local economic activity.

Usually, TIF involves the issuance of revenue bonds by a local authority in order to finance initial development expenditures, which may include land purchases, the construction of infrastructure or (at least potentially) the creation of or improvements to residential structures. 10 The idea is either that these expenditures will, in and of themselves, create future property tax generating structures, or that they are complementary to private investment, an increase that will stimulate property development and/or increase the value of existing property. In either event, the initial expenditure will increase future property tax revenues. TIF schemes then allow local authorities to "capture" the additional tax revenue resulting from a TIF project and use the "tax increments" obtained to meet the costs of development — including the principal and interest on any bonds issued initially, as well as the costs of any further development that is deemed desirable. Because some part of the increased taxes captured by the local authority would normally accrue to a variety of other taxing jurisdictions — such as the county and local school districts — TIF schemes necessarily involve these other jurisdictions agreeing to forego revenues that they would otherwise be entitled to receive. Presumably, such agreement is made based on the expectation of an offsetting increase in tax revenues accruing to these jurisdictions following the completion of the development project.

As intimated above, TIF can, in principle, be used for housing development schemes. Because the financial viability of TIF depends on there being sufficient incremental tax revenue to at least pay for initial development costs, however, it is important to question whether housing developments alone could be expected to generate such additional revenues. Alternatively, housing development could from part of a more general TIF scheme, with some percentage of incremental tax revenues being apportioned for use on residential expenditure. It is not clear, however, that such designations have to be honored in the short-run. If apportioned expenditures are promised only at the end of a project, they are unlikely to provide a very expedient solution to the problem of blight in residential areas, as some TIF schemes take more than fifteen years to complete. 11

Another problem with TIF is that the captured revenues and development expenditures they are used to pay for become "off budget" items in local authority accounts. This increases opportunities for corrupt uses of funds, by reducing public scrutiny of the precise uses to which public resources are put. TIF has also been portrayed as a potential enemy of urban re-development, because it facilitates the duplication of inner city infrastructure in suburban areas by local authorities eager to encourage business and residential relocation in an effort to expand their tax bases (Wray, 1996). In this way, TIF may contribute to the phenomena of urban flight and, hence, to the cycle of decline and abandonment that characterizes urban blight. Finally, TIF can be used to "gentrify" blighted areas, in which case the benefits of re-developing these neighborhoods may not accrue to those who presently bear the many costs associated with living in or near them.

e) Aggressive Urban Planning as a Solution to Blight? — during the early 1970s, the City of Portland, Oregon began to suffer from the symptoms of urban flight. Twenty years later, however, it is considered to be a model for planners, having controlled suburban sprawl, fostered extensive use of public transport and — significantly — revitalized its inner-city. This has all been brought about by a very tight "green belt" law, which has banned development outside a boundary encircling the city and thus forced development back into the inner-city (see, for example, Ortega, 1995).

Could such aggressive urban planning be used to rehabilitate cities in Connecticut? The idea of forcing residential development back into the city by preventing it from occurring outside certain limits would certainly create incentives to rehabilitate and/or redevelop abandoned properties and to maintain those currently in good standing. It is important to note, however, that a number of peculiarities connected with Portland's experience that have undoubtably affected the efficacy of its planning strategy. First, Portland, like many other cities in the West, is experiencing rapid population growth. More and more people want to live there, so that Portland's urban planning strategy has only tended to influence where, precisely, these people live in proximity to the city. Whether a similar scheme could be nearly so effective in areas that are not experiencing such rapid population growth is an open question. Second, the desire to revitalize downtown Portland emanated from a coalition of interests both within and outside the city, resulting in the creation of a unique, regional government (called Metro) which was made responsible for planning in the twenty-four municipalities and three counties it encompassed. Whether such political structures could be re-created elsewhere is, again, an open question.

Finally, it is important to note that forcing development back into a confined geographical space (such as an inner-city) is likely to increase property prices. If this results in the gentrification of currently blighted neighborhoods and the concomitant displacement of large sections of the current incumbent population of these neighborhoods, then it is once again important to reflect on whose interests urban re-development would ultimately serve.

f) Community Rehabilitation Initiates — although they could never provide a complete solution to the problem of urban blight, there are a number of measures that might be adopted within communities affected by urban blight in an effort to redress the problems caused by abandonment. The Rio Vista Community Partnership in San Bernardino, California, provides a noteworthy example. This partnership, between the school district, the police and local families and businesses, is based on the "broken window" theory of neighborhood decline. This theory points to a dual relationship between the physical deterioration of a neighborhood and its psychological deterioration (as measured by the growth of despair and hopelessness, the lack of personal and community pride and so forth). Hence, one broken window left unrepaired is interpreted as signal that no one cares, as a result of which further acts of property damage are likely to follow setting in motion a downward spiral. The Rio Vista Community Partnership set out to reverse this vicious circle. Local contractors agreed to make certain repairs, but only by employing local youths provided through school shop programs. This not only cut the labor costs of repairs, but also taught local youths potentially marketable professional skills in the process. In so doing, some of the visible signs of urban blight were remedied by precisely the individuals whose pride in the community was necessary for its future physical maintenance.

Similar schemes have been proposed by the Environmental Improvement Committee of East St. Louis, Kansas, whose efforts are designed to tackle threats to local health and safety and to improve the aesthetic quality of neighborhoods. Their project proposals range from community-based clean-ups of vacant lots and the sites of abandoned buildings, to schemes for demolishing dangerous or extensively dilapidated buildings. A particularly novel proposal is to create an Environmental Education and Employment Program for local high school students, which would use local neighborhoods as a "laboratory" and work site. The ultimate goal is to establish this Program as part of the local high school curriculum, in the hope of enhancing not just the job-training opportunities available to local youths, but also their interest in the communities in which they live and their respect for learning and achievement in school.

Obviously, it would be extremely naive to believe that local, community-based initiatives such as those described above can completely solve the problems connected with abandonment. They may, however, make a valid contribution to efforts to redress urban blight, and may have a particularly important role to play in encouraging community pride and the sense that other schemes to redress abandonment are being undertaken in conjunction with the efforts of local residents and not simply by autonomous and anonymous local authorities.

4. Conclusions

Abandoned buildings can be associated with a wide variety of socio-economic problems. They are magnets for criminal activity, including the consumption and trade of drugs, prostitution, and crime against property. They erode not only the aesthetic appeal of whole neighborhoods, but also the social fabric of the communities in which they are located. Abandoned buildings cause property values in surrounding areas to decline, and represent a waste of resources that is cruelly ironic in areas plagued by homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. They also pose health and safety risks, often constituting fire and toxic waste hazards and regularly becoming rodent infested. Finally, abandoned buildings have a tendency to cluster in certain neighborhoods, a phenomena which is, itself, partly a symptom of the tendency of abandonment to encourage further abandonment in a self-reinforcing, vicious circle of urban blight and decline.

There is no unique solution to the panoply of problems created by abandonment. Instead, as the discussion in section 3 demonstrates, there exist a variety of different plans and stratagems for tackling blight, which range from the use of anti-blight ordinances to community-based initiatives designed to tackle some of the most basic problems associated with abandonment. These schemes involve a variety of public, private and community initiatives. On the basis of these considerations, it seems reasonable to draw two broad conclusions. First, in the absence of any obvious unique solution to the problem of blight, there is probably a need for an array of policies and initiatives, designed to work together by addressing different aspects of abandonment, if urban blight is to be seriously confronted. Second, it would not seem that responsibility for tackling blight can be assumed to rest solely within the public sector, the private sector, or within local communities themselves. In particular, despite contemporary attitudes toward the institutions of government, it is most likely that the state will have an important role to play in any successful attempt to right the problems associated with abandonment. Furthermore, it is especially important that the fashion for proposals emphasizing community initiatives — some of which have been discussed above — should not develop into an exercise of passing the abandonment problem onto those who financially, legally and organizationally are amongst those least able to meet the demands of addressing the problem.


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1 "Adequate housing" is defined in terms of whether or not a building has plumbing fixtures, heating equipment, etc., and with reference to the state in which the building is maintained. "Affordable housing" takes up no more than 30% of a household's income.

2 Hartford's anti-blight program could formerly be found in Chapter 9, Article V of the Hartford Municipal Code. New Britain's current anti-blight program can be found under Chapter 7, Article III of that city's Code of Ordinances.

3 This is a significant variation, as further explanation will reveal.

4 From this point on, the precise provisions of the ordinances differ. The reader is referred to the relevant chapters and articles of each City's municipal ordinances for further detail.

5 Absentee landlords feature prominently in the ownership of abandoned buildings. Of the 571 abandoned buildings in Hartford in 1995, more than 40% were owned by absentee landlords (Blighted Properties Update, February 1996:2). Initiatives designed to transfer the ownership of formerly blighted properties to members of local communities are not foreign to the state of Connecticut. In New Haven, non-profit organizations such as Neighborhood Housing Services and the Housing Rehabilitative Institute buy buildings that have been foreclosed by banks or acquired by the city. The buildings are renovated and sold to low-income families, who buy them with no-interest loans pieced together — with the help of Neighborhood Housing Services — from federal, state and city programs. A proposal for a similar program in New Britain can be found in the Citizens for Action in New Britain's Neighborhood Blight Remediation and Prevention Program. Meanwhile, the City of Hartford currently uses money from HUD's HOME program to help home buyers with the down payments and financing necessary to purchase one, two, and three family units in Hartford neighborhoods.

6 Tax delinquent landlords were those whose taxes were in arrears for three years. In the late 1970s, New York City implemented a fast foreclosure law that permitted the city to foreclose on property whose taxes were in arrears for only one year. Rather than inducing landlords to redeem their property, however, it "precipitated a massive abandonment, putting hundreds of thousands of units under the city's purview" (Levitt and Saegert, 1988, 490).

7 Levitt and Saegert (1988, 498) note that "support from city planning staff for efforts by neighborhood people is essential to institutionalize programs."

8 Monies from HUD's Home and Community Block Grants (DCBG) may be used in this manner.

9 Of course, this does not mean that all property owners will necessarily respond to this incentive to improve and develop land. Other things being equal, if the costs of improvement outweigh the expected returns, improvement will not occur — and the more economically depressed an area is, the more likely this is to be the case. By shifting the incidence of taxation away from buildings towards land values, however, LVT does reduce the cost of improvement, making the latter more likely, other things being equal.

10 For instance, the Minnesota Tax Increment Financing Act of 1979 permits the creation of TIF districts to finance housing projects.

11 For example, the current TIF scheme in the Central Station area of Chicago is due to take eighteen years to complete.