Models for Legislative & Enforcement Reform
Prepared by: Mark
Setterfield·Associate Professor of Economics
Trinity College·Hartford, CT 06106·(860)297-2132
Trinity Center for Neighborhoods
190 New Britain Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106-3100
Maria Simao, Project Director
Research Project 23
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
- Residents apply to building and neighborhood conditions the domestic skills learned
within the home, including budgeting, managing, and resolving conflicts.
- 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
- 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
- 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 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
- Building outward from the resources and social and emotional ties of households and
communities creates links to places and opportunities outside the immediate environment.
- 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
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
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
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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Inner City Development: A Case Study of Inner Manchester" Urban Studies 25: 62-76.
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Edition. February, 23, 1996.
Greenberg, M.R., F.J. Popper and B.M. West (1990) "The TOADS: A New American Urban
Epidemic." Urban Affairs Quarterly 25: 435-54.
Greenberg, M.R., F.J. Popper, D. Schnieder and B.M. West (1993) "Community
Organizing to Prevent TOADS in the United States" Community Development Journal
Kelling, G.L. and C.M. Coles (1996) Fixing Broken Windows. New York: Free
Levitt, J. and S. Saegert (1988) "The Community-Household: Responding to Housing
Abandonment in New York City" American Planning Association Journal
Nash, W.W. and M.L. Colean (1959) Residential Rehabilitation: Private Profits and
Public Properties. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Nenno, M.K. (1996) Ending the Stalemate. New York: University Press of
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Pittsburgh Experience" Resources for the Future Discussion Paper.
Oppenheim, V. and L.F. Sierra (1994) Building Blocks: Community-Based Strategies to
Counteract Housing Disinvestment and Abandonment in New York City. New York:
Community Service Society of New York.
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Growth" The Wall Street Journal. Tuesday, December 26: A1, A8.
Spelman, W. (1993) "Abandoned Buildings: Magnets for Crime" Journal of
Criminal Justice 21: 481-95.
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and Regional Health" Fedgazette (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis)
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
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
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.