Torched Vacant House in Cleveland. Courtesy of Plain Dealer

There is a crisis in America that’s not being attended to. It is the housing crisis, and its tentacles reach deep into the decline of the American middle class. Particularly, the interlocking dynamics of foreclosure, abandonment, and blight are draining the net worth of millions of Americans. The solutions to date have been piecemeal and ineffective. One possible initiative on the radar—which will be explained further below—entails a federal investment in the strategic demolishing of thousands of “zombie properties” that are eroding equity and quality of life.

This erosion is real. Writes Howie Kahn of his recent tour with a City of Detroit demolition crew:

Old roofs half-collapse under the weight of snow, forcing the walls to bulge outward. Moisture eats away the insides. Mold spoils the walls, softens the floors. In the summer, the sun bakes it all to a high stink and turns it crisp as tinder. Nature takes over. Trees sprout through the dormers. Animals get comfortable. We see this everywhere we go…So many innocent onetime starter homes, built on credit and striving, now in foreclosure. The holding company writes it off as a loss. And unless some crusading neighborhood association acts as a sentry, no one’s watching the house anymore. In essence, it belongs to nobody—or to everybody. Because once a house becomes worthless and unwanted…it’s everybody’s problem. Everybody’s crime scene.

As both a policy researcher and a Clevelander, I know these realities first hand. The city was home to over 40,000 vacant housing units in 2010, or nearly 20% of its stock. Several of these units were across a street from me, the result of a foreclosure on a rental investment purchased during housing inflation heights. Tenants were kicked out around 2009. The place sat empty, but I soon noticed people constantly disappearing into the back of the building. Drug activity I thought. Then one day I found a pile of hypodermic needles on my front lawn while cutting the grass. I have a child. The very real effect of blight acted as a drain on my property value, not to mention my quality of life.

And while I stayed in the City of Cleveland, many don’t. Cleveland lost 17% of its population from 2000 to 2010. The population decline (which is a long-term trend)—combined with the subprime mortgage crisis—created for unprecedented amounts of oversupply. Often, with both banks and homeowners walking away, the vacant structure devolves into blight until it becomes “a disamentiy effect”, which in plain-speak simply means living near something nobody would want to, with the unappealing prospect monetized in the devaluation of the house’s market value.

This disamentiy effect has been quantified. For instance, my colleague Nigel Griswold found that in Flint, MI each abandoned structure within 500 ft. reduced a home’s sales price by 2.27%. A study by Thomas Fitzpatrick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland showed an additional property within 500 ft. that is either delinquent or vacant reduces prices by 1.3%. In low-poverty areas the effect is greater: 4.6%.

Of course the larger problem is the broader economic effect, as depreciation goes beyond a lower return on investment and gets at household net worth. Specifically, according to the Census Bureau, household net worth declined 20% from 2005 to 2010 (40% since 2007). Of this decline, 76% was attributed to a loss of home equity. Minorities were hardest hit, with average Black household equity falling from $70,000 to $50,000 and average Hispanic household equity falling $90,000 to $40,000.

Such declines in net worth have swelled the number of Americans stuck in precarious economic conditions. A recent report called “Living on the Edge: Financial Insecurity and Policies to Rebuild Prosperity in America” found that nearly half of Americans are “liquid asset poor”, meaning “they lack the savings to cover basic expenses for three months if unemployment, a medical emergency or other crisis leads to a loss of stable income.”

Vacant house in Detroit. Courtesy of Streetsblog

Such economic figures are alarming, and they call for intensive solutions aimed at reconstituting the American middle class, if only to achieve a broader economic recovery outside of the investor class. One such solution could entail a large-scale strategic demolition of “zombie properties” in America’s hardest hit areas, such as the Rust Belt.

Why demolition?

It is simple, really: by removing the disamentiy effect you are giving the value of the surrounding houses a chance, and there is initial empirical proof that this does in fact occur. Specifically, in his examination of Flint, MI, Griswold found that Genesee County’s demolition investment was paying off, with $3.5 million of demolition activity producing $112 million in improved surrounding property values. Not a bad ROI, and it’s a return that positively affects homeowners, investors, and government alike.

The question remains: why isn’t there a concerted effort to once and for all excise the hundreds of thousands “zombie properties” that are draining value from the American economy?

The reasons are varied, but one in particular relates to a lack of empirical proof that demolition has a definitive monetary impact. One current study, spearheaded by Jim Rokakis of the Thriving Communities Institute, aims to fill the gap. The study, headed by Nigel Griswold, myself, and the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University, was partly conceived out of a September 2012 interagency meeting on Residential Property Vacancy, Abandonment and Demolition in which—after hearing pleas from a largely Midwestern contingent—officials from Federal Treasury issued a challenge: show through robust empirical means that demolition (1) retains value on nearby properties, and (2) decreases the likelihood of future foreclosures. If the results prove definitive, Treasury suggested they could make a federal strategic demolition initiative a reality.

Vacant houses in Buffalo. Courtesy of the NY Times.

Of course the operative word here is “strategic”, as bulldozing for the sake of bulldozing does not a solution to a crisis make. As such, the intent of this research is also to help those on the ground ascertain where an investment in demolitions could pay off most. For example, there are properties—particularly architecturally-rich properties with high intrinsic value—that should be preserved and shuttled down another path. As well, there are areas in cities in which population decline is shifting ever so slightly. The area I had lived was one of them. And the house that was once vacant across from me has been renovated and is now home to a number of tenants. Thus, the authors of the study are cognizant of the contextualization that exists in various hardest hit cities, and so recommendations will be matched with an understanding as such.

That said, the study is currently ongoing, and while the results are as yet unclear—and in fact may not be robust enough to convince D.C. to act—the effect of “zombie properties” on the financial and mental well-being of regular Americans is anything but uncertain.

As a Clevelander, I know this all too well.

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