Vacant House map

This piece originally appeared at Cool Cleveland.

I am a researcher on an ongoing study commissioned by the Thriving Communities Institute that has sparked a debate about what to do with the glut of vacant houses in Cuyahoga County, which number 26,000. The debate is being played out curiously, with lines drawn between those who want to preserve vacant houses versus those who want to demolish vacant houses. But solving the area’s housing woes is not an either/or proposition, meaning the dichotomy between preservation and razing is a false one.

Yet the vacancy plague the Rust Belt faces is real, and it is high time officials in Washington D.C. know this.

On this last front headway is being made. For instance, a conference call was recently held between staff at the Thriving Communities Institute and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank with members of President Obama’s National Economic Council (NEC). The meeting was initiated by the NEC once they received word of the aforementioned study, which aims to examine the effect demolition has on nearby property values, as well as the likelihood of whether or not removing vacant properties will decrease risk of foreclosure.

The White House’s interest arose out of increasing Federal awareness to the housing problems plaguing the industrial Midwest, in which blight, decreasing housing values, increasing foreclosures, and increasing vacancy rates creates for a cycle of neighborhood decline that—minus major intervention—will persist, regardless of a broader national housing recovery.

One such intervention is strategic demolition. Why demolition? Because, according to studies completed by the Cleveland Fed, we know blighted properties erode neighboring property values, not to mention qualify of life. Such factors influence whether or not a person stays in a given house or neighborhood. Thus, by removing those vacant structures that act as a destabilizing effect, the intent is to preserve existing households so that a bottom to the region’s housing decline can be found.

Yet while all of this makes intuitive sense, definitive empirical evidence of demolition’s impact on stabilizing the housing crisis, particularly related to mortgage foreclosure, is lacking. Without such evidence, the White House is having difficulty unlocking billions of dollars of Hardest Hit Funds for strategic demolition; hence the eyes on the local study.

But the study is not without its critics. Specifically, Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, among others, contend the study’s results are predetermined, with Councilman Johnson recently saying, “[T]hey want this study to legitimize their opinion, when in fact a number of us don’t agree that demolition is the right solution”.

Two things: First, the results of what will be a rigorous empirical investigation are not “fixed”, as handing over fudged numbers to very smart people at the Federal Treasury and the National Economic Council will, to say the least, not be advisable for all involved, including this author.

Second, strategic demolition is and always has been one solution to the problem of neighborhood blight. This is beyond the pale. Residents who live near blighted, crime-ridden structures know this. Policy makers know this. Even Councilman Reed knows this, telling the Plain Dealer recently: “I agree that 75 [percent] to 80 percent of the[vacant] houses in my ward need to be torn down”. One aim, then, is to provide Councilman Reed and other local politicians the funds they need to answer their constituents’ pleas related to vacancy, if only to preserve an existing constituency.

Now, does this mean that demolition is the only solution to Cleveland’s housing crisis?

No, and no one associated with the study, including Jim Rokakis—the man leading the charge in regional vacancy abatement—makes that claim. Both strategic rehab of architectural gems and strategic demolition of so-called “zombie properties” are two of several tools needed to build back the area’s housing value. And the menus of services offered by the Cuyahoga County Land Bank—mothballing, renovation, and demolition—reflect as much. In fact framing the issue as an either/or proposition is not only illogical but disingenuous, and such tactics say far more about the territorialism that has historically undermined the region’s ability to meet a crisis head on than it does about the reality of a crises itself.

To that end, here is where Mayor Jackson’s recent statements in his annual remarks on the state of the city are more than prescient. There, the Cleveland Mayor stated he envisioned a city that no longer observes the cultural divides and territorialism that has kept the region fragmented.

Addressing the region’s vacancy crisis outside of false dichotomies and identity politics would be a good first step in realizing the Mayor’s vision.

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