Expert Commentary

Zombie property: What research says about abandoned buildings

This sampling of research examines urban renewal efforts and how vacant and abandoned buildings affect local property values, crime and health.

Abandoned City Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana
Abandoned City Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana (Flickr/slworking2)

Communities around the country grapple with what to do with their vacant and abandoned buildings, which, over time, can become eyesores. Dilapidated buildings can hurt the value of surrounding property and become public health hazards. Elected leaders know they are also major barriers to revitalizing urban areas such as downtown shopping districts and low-income neighborhoods.

Vacant and abandoned buildings are such serious problems that some local governments threaten steep fines if owners allow their unused buildings to fall into disrepair or become safety hazards. Some states have adopted laws to fight urban blight. For example, in 2016, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed sweeping legislation to prevent foreclosures and rehabilitate “zombie properties.” A law in Washington state that takes effect in May 2018 will allow cities to force lending institutions to maintain properties that are empty during foreclosure.

Many journalists covering local governments will inevitably have to cover issues related to abandoned property and urban renewal. To help, Journalist’s Resource has gathered a sampling of research that looks at redevelopment efforts in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland as well as studies that examine how abandoned structures affect crime, property values and public health.


Preventing and reusing abandoned buildings

“Reuse of Abandoned Property in Detroit and Flint”
Dewar, Margaret. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2015. DOI: 10.1177/0739456X15589815.

Abstract: “When owners stop paying property taxes, a government forecloses on the property. This research compares outcomes after auctions, the common way governments sell tax-reverted property, with outcomes after sales from a city department and a land bank authority. Data on a random sample of sold properties came from field research and administrative sources. Auctions failed in returning property to reuse compared to other ways of selling tax-reverted property. Managed sales led to more owner-occupied homes, additions of side lots to homes and businesses, and redevelopment and reuse as well as fewer returns to foreclosure and less property flipping.”

“Vacant and Abandoned Properties: Turning Liabilities Into Assets”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, Winter 2014.

Highlights: “The absence of universal definitions of vacancy and abandonment complicates efforts to assess the number of vacant and abandoned properties nationally. Vacant and abandoned properties are linked to increased rates of crime (particularly arson) and declining property values. The maintenance or demolition of vacant properties is a huge expense for many cities. It is critical to match strategies for combating vacancy to neighborhood market conditions.”

 “Greening the Rust Belt: A Green Infrastructure Model for Right Sizing America’s Shrinking Cities”
Schilling, Joseph; Logan, Jonathan. Journal of the American Planning Association, 2008. DOI: 10.1080/01944360802354956.

Purpose: “We define strategies shrinking cities can use to convert vacant properties to valuable green infrastructure to revitalize urban environments, empower community residents, and stabilize dysfunctional real estate markets. To do this we examine shrinking cities and their vacant property challenges; identify the benefits of urban greening; explore the policies, obstacles, and promise of a green infrastructure initiative; and discuss vacant property reclamation programs and policies that would form the nucleus of a model green infrastructure right-sizing initiative designed to stabilize the communities with the greatest level of abandonment.”

“Selling Tax-Reverted Land: Lessons from Cleveland and Detroit: New This Spring Westchester”
Dewar, Margaret. Journal of the American Planning Association, 2006. DOI: 10.1080/01944360608976737.

Abstract: “Property abandonment is widespread in many northeastern and midwestern cities. Some cities succeed better than others at moving abandoned properties to new uses. Comparing Detroit and Cleveland, where indicators of demand for land look similar, reveals that Clevelanďs land bank has been an effective approach to selling tax-reverted land for reuse, while Detroit’s method of land disposition has been less successful. Cleveland integrates its approach into the mayor’s agenda for housing development and supports redevelopment with many complementary efforts. Clevelanďs land bank conveys land with clear title, has an accurate property inventory, ‘banks’ property, and sells for predictable, low prices.”

“Year-Round Vacancy Rates for the 75 Largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas: 2015 to 2017”
U.S. Census Bureau report, 2018.

Summary: This spreadsheet from the U.S. Census provides data on the percentage of housing that was left vacant all year in the nation’s top 75 largest areas between 2015 and 2017. Year-round vacancy rates ranged from 3.9 percent in Fresno, California to 11.8 percent in the Baltimore region to 20.2 percent in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area of Florida.

Impacts on crime

“Urban Blight Remediation as a Cost-Beneficial Solution to Firearm Violence”
Branas, Charles C.; et al. American Journal of Public Health, 2016. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303434.

Conclusions: “Abandoned buildings and vacant lots are blighted structures seen daily by urban residents that may create physical opportunities for violence by sheltering illegal activity and illegal firearms. Urban blight remediation programs can be cost-beneficial strategies that significantly and sustainably reduce firearm violence.”

“A Difference-In-Differences Study of the Effects of a New Abandoned Building Remediation Strategy on Safety”
Kondo, Michelle C.; et al. PLOS ONE, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0129582.

Abstract: “Vacant and abandoned buildings pose significant challenges to the health and safety of communities. In 2011 the City of Philadelphia began enforcing a Doors and Windows Ordinance that required property owners of abandoned buildings to install working doors and windows in all structural openings or face significant fines. We tested the effects of the new ordinance on the occurrence of crime surrounding abandoned buildings from January 2011 to April 2013 using a difference-in-differences approach. We used Poisson regression models to compare differences in pre- and post-treatment measures of crime for buildings that were remediated as a result of the ordinance (n = 676) or permitted for renovation (n = 241), and randomly-matched control buildings that were not remediated (n = 676) or permitted for renovation (n = 964), while also controlling for sociodemographic and other confounders measured around each building. Building remediations were significantly associated with citywide reductions in overall crimes, total assaults, gun assaults and nuisance crimes (p <0.001). Building remediations were also significantly associated with reductions in violent gun crimes in one city section (p <0.01). At the same time, some significant increases were seen in narcotics sales and possession and property crimes around remediated buildings (p <0.001). Building renovation permits were significantly associated with reductions in all crime classifications across multiple city sections (p <0.001). We found no significant spatial displacement effects. Doors and windows remediation offers a relatively low-cost method of reducing certain crimes in and around abandoned buildings. Cities with an abundance of decaying and abandoned housing stock might consider some form of this structural change to their built environments as one strategy to enhance public safety.”

“Foreclosure, Vacancy and Crime”
Cui, Lin; Walsh, Randall. Journal of Urban Economics, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.jue.2015.01.001.

Abstract: “This paper examines the impact of residential foreclosures and vacancies on violent and property crime. To overcome confounding factors, a difference-in-difference research design is applied to a unique data set containing geocoded foreclosure and crime data from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Results indicate that while foreclosure alone has no effect on crime, violent crime rates increase by roughly 19 percent once the foreclosed home becomes vacant — an effect that increases with length of vacancy. We find weak evidence suggesting a potential vacancy effect for property crime that is much lower in magnitude.”

“Addressing Foreclosed and Abandoned Properties”
Pais, Roxann; Wolf, Robert V. U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance report, 2010. NCJ Number: 230184.

Abstract: “With nearly 3.2 million foreclosures in the United States in 2008, it is understandable that much of the public’s attention has been focused on the economic repercussions of the Nation’s housing crisis. However, the repercussions for law enforcement have been as significant. The increased foreclosures and abandoned properties has generated many interrelated problems from unsafe structures and higher crime rates to homelessness and strains on municipal services. This guide offers ideas and potential responses to help policymakers, law enforcement agencies, and community partners address the challenges presented by foreclosed and abandoned properties. Ideas are offered in the areas of prevention (i.e., create housing resource center, develop process to clear legal title for heirs, offer temporary and/or extended financial assistance, establish emergency loan program), enforcement (i.e., require vacancy license and liability insurance, impose a tax on abandoned property, make ‘nuisance’ crimes a felony, expedite tax foreclosures, create an enforcement task force, use inspection warrant), and reuse (i.e., consider demolition, create a land bank, create a side-yard program, broaden receivership laws, build greater special financing for property in troubled neighborhoods).”

Impacts on surrounding environment

“Testing the Temporal Nature of Social Disorder through Abandoned Buildings and Interstitial Spaces”
Wallace, Danielle; Schalliol, David. Social Science Research, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2015.06.013.

Abstract: “With the recent housing crisis, studying abandoned buildings has once again become important. However, it has been some time since abandoned buildings were the subject of direct study, leaving scholars with scant knowledge about the characteristics of abandoned buildings, how they change, and their relationship to neighborhood processes. To fill this gap, we employed longitudinal photographic and SSO evaluations of 36 abandoned buildings and their immediate surroundings in Chicago for one year (n = 587). Results demonstrate the presence and severity of social disorder cues vary across time points and the time of day of observation. There is a relationship between abandoned buildings and social disorder, though the relationship is not a trend. Also, social disorder is diminished around extremely decayed buildings. Lastly, we find that our results are driven by the measurement of places ignored by most SSO studies, including alleys and the rear side of buildings.”

“The Impact of Abandoned Properties on Nearby Property Values”
Han, Hye-Sung. Housing Policy Debate, 2014. DOI: 10.1080/10511482.2013.832350.

Abstract: “Previous research has shown that housing abandonment contributes to neighborhood decline by depressing nearby property values. However, most past research estimated the impact of abandonment through cross-sectional analysis without controlling for nearby foreclosures or local housing market trends. Therefore, it remains unclear whether abandoned properties reduce nearby property values or whether abandonment is more common in areas with already lower-valued properties. Prior research also has not explored how the duration of abandonment influences nearby property values. Therefore, to extend the current level of understanding of the impact of abandonment, this research examines the impact of abandoned properties on nearby property values in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1991 to 2010 using longitudinal data sets while simultaneously controlling for both nearby foreclosures and local housing market trends. This research finds that as properties are abandoned for longer periods of time, the impact on nearby property values not only increases in magnitude but also is seen increasingly farther away.”

“Proximity to Vacant Buildings is Associated with Increased Fire Risk in Baltimore, Maryland, Homes”
Schachterle, Stephen E.; et al. Injury Prevention, 2012. DOI: 10.1136/injuryprev-2011-040022.

Results: “On average, a 10 percent increase in the proportion of vacancies in a census tract was associated with a 9.9 percent increase in fires.”

Impact on health, wellbeing

“More Than Just An Eyesore: Local Insights and Solutions on Vacant Land And Urban Health”
Garvin, Eugenia. Journal of Urban Health, 2013. DOI: 10.1007/s11524-012-9782-7.

Abstract: “Vacant land is a significant economic problem for many cities, but also may affect the health and safety of residents. In order for community-based solutions to vacant land to be accepted by target populations, community members should be engaged in identifying local health impacts and generating solutions. We conducted 50 in-depth semi-structured interviews with people living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a city with high vacancy, about the impact of vacant land on community and individual health and safety, as well as ideas for solutions to vacant land. Participants described a neighborhood physical environment dominated by decaying abandoned homes and overgrown vacant lots which affected community well-being, physical health, and mental health. Vacant land was thought to affect community well-being by overshadowing positive aspects of the community, contributing to fractures between neighbors, attracting crime, and making residents fearful. Vacant land was described as impacting physical health through injury, the buildup of trash, and attraction of rodents, as well as mental health through anxiety and stigma. Participants had several ideas for solutions to vacant land in their community, including transformation of vacant lots into small park spaces for the elderly and playgrounds for youth, and the use of abandoned homes for subsidized housing and homeless shelters. A few participants took pride in maintaining vacant lots on their block, and others expressed interest in performing maintenance but lacked the resources to do so. Public health researchers and practitioners, and urban planners should engage local residents in the design and implementation of vacant land strategies. Furthermore, municipalities should ensure that the health and safety impact of vacant land helps drive policy decisions around vacant land.”

“Neighborhood Social Conditions Mediate the Association Between Physical Deterioration and Mental Health”
Kruger, Daniel J.; Reischl, Thomas M.; Gee, Gilbert C. American Journal of Community Psychology, 2007. DOI: 10.1007/s10464-007-9139-7.

Abstract: “This study investigates how neighborhood deterioration is associated with stress and depressive symptoms and the mediating effects of perceived neighborhood social conditions. Data come from a community survey of 801 respondents geocoded and linked to a systematic on‐site assessment of the physical characteristics of nearly all residential and commercial structures around respondents’ homes. Structural equation models controlling for demographic effects indicate that the association between neighborhood deterioration and well‐being appear to be mediated through social contact, social capital, and perceptions of crime, but not through neighborhood satisfaction. Specifically, residential deterioration was mediated by social contact, then, social capital and fear of crime. Commercial deterioration, on the other hand, was mediated only through fear of crime. Additionally, data indicate that the functional definition of a ‘neighborhood’ depends on the characteristics measured. These findings suggest that upstream interventions designed to improve neighborhood conditions as well as proximal interventions focused on social relationships, may promote well‐being.”

Interested in more housing research? Check out The Journalist’s Resource’s other write-ups on housing affordability, eviction and low-income housing tax credits.

This photo by slworking2 was obtained from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

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