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Effective Strategies for Tackling Vacant Properties

Urban homesteading as a response to hypervacancy is in the news after South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg proposed the Douglass Plan while on the presidential campaign trail.
August 31, 2019, 11am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment

Joseph Schilling and Brian Bieretz write on the subject of vacant and abandoned properties, suggesting collaborative and comprehensive strategies to respond to a complex problem.

The problem’s scope and impact vary among cities and neighborhoods, depending on the relative strengths or weaknesses of the regional economy, local housing market, and local government capacity. In older industrial legacy cities, such as Baltimore and Detroit, hypervacancy creates a dynamic where some neighborhoods are undergoing gentrification while others nearby are plagued by blighted buildings and less economic opportunity.

The article is written in response to a policy announcement made by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also a Democratic candidate for president, at the end of July, proposing a federal policy, called the Douglas Plan, resembling the urban homesteading popular during the 1970s.

Kriston Capps reported on Buttigieg's proposal in an earlier post for CityLab, describing the Douglass Plan as  an attempt to bridge the racial wealth gap, prioritize environmental equity, and reform the criminal justice system. "Embedded within that plan is a housing proposal for the parts of America that are still reeling from the Great Recession, a plan that would promote homeownership by targeting hypervacancy," writes Capps.

Under the Buttigieg proposal, cities would bid for comprehensive financing under a new Homeownership Fund (operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Pilot cities would establish a land bank to acquire and develop abandoned or foreclosed properties. A special-purpose trust (also administered by HUD) would purchase those properties and provide funds for restoring them. An eligible homesteader would then be granted the property to use as a primary residence—and after 10 years, the homesteader would own the property free and clear.

According to Schilling and Bieretz, however, homesteading only works for a portion of a city's vacant properties. "The plan would likely work best in middle neighborhoods [pdf] with modest property abandonment, some threshold market strength, and community-based organizations and capacities. The homes must also be in good physical condition, where it makes financial sense to rehabilitate them," according to the article.

To help ensure an effective strategy for vacant and abandoned properties, Schilling and Bieretz have created a list of five elements necessary to reclaim vacant properties and revitalize struggling neighborhoods:

  1. Comprehensive property data and information infrastructure.
  2. Resources for land banking.
  3. Strategic code enforcement.
  4. Public and private resources.
  5. Civic infrastructure and community stewardship.
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Published on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 in Urban Institute
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