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Demolition the right way: Using strategic demolition to revitalize communities

December 20, 2013


Though temperatures were in the low 40’s, spirits were high when I attended the 3rd Anniversary of the multifaceted Vacants to Value program in Baltimore last month. Over the past 3 years, Baltimore’s Vacants to Value (V2V) program has rehabbed 1,500 homes and demolished more than 700. Both blight reduction strategies were on display during the anniversary celebration.

“Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value program is a multi-pronged, market-driven, data-focused approach to eliminating blight in Baltimore City,” explained Michael Braverman, Baltimore Housing’s Deputy Commissioner of Permits & Code Enforcement, in an interview with Community Progress at our Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference back in September.

Throughout the day of celebration, I saw firsthand what the Mayor’s flagship blight-reduction program is accomplishing. In the early afternoon, community members and city officials gathered outside a newly renovated rowhome in the up-and-coming Remington neighborhood. The soon-to-be-owner, a Teach for America alum from Texas who had decided to stay and teach in the city, spoke about her experience as a first-time home buyer through V2V. She expressed gratitude and happiness about the opportunity to buy her first home and give back to the city.

Afterwards, the party caravanned to the site of a blighted block of rowhouses in the struggling Johnston Square neighborhood, where a bulldozer was waiting to tear down decaying buildings to make room for a burgeoning urban garden project about to take root next door. The city had already rehabbed a row of apartments across the street, and by demolishing this blight to create room for urban agriculture, there is hope that the neighborhood will continue to revitalize.

As we were witnessing this live demolition, the New York Times was running a piece on demolition in Baltimore and throughout the Rust Belt, exploring the effectiveness of demolition in revitalizing these struggling communities. It’s clear that when, how, and how much to demolish vacant properties are among the most critical questions America’s post-industrial cities face today.

I decided to catch up with Michael Brady, Community Progress’ Vice President of Policy, to get some perspective on demolition, how it’s being used, and how it can be an integral part of community revitalization. Here are Mike’s thoughts:

IMG_0142What do you mean by strategic demolition, and how does it differ from “ad hoc” demolition?

Michael Brady, Community Progress: Sure, so the concept is basic. Demolition is one intervention tool, a tactic, but to be effective it has to be a part of a larger strategy. The point is that it links in with a larger plan, and that it’s done in a way that is thoughtful and aware of these other things. Ad hoc demolition — one-off here or there — is without the same thoughtfulness and consideration of market realities and other things that are going on.

An example of non-strategic demolition would be the use of demolition in an area where there are blocks and blocks of urban prairie, common in Detroit. There may be a burned out structure here and there that needs to be demolished, but given the limited resources, folks like Detroit Future City are recommending that we don’t make these isolated buildings a priority. It is like the old adage: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make it sound? If a dangerous building is demolished, but no one lives there, what value comes from removing that blight? Any value is minuscule. Instead, we should prioritize funds and use them in areas where they will have maximum impact, i.e. near a school.

IMG_0106How can demolition be used in conjunction with other tools to be more effective?

MB: Demolition is one tool, one particular tactic for what, in the scheme of things, is a limited problem. It is a response to a building that is dangerous to both public health and safety. Demolition should be a response to a building so far gone that it may not make sense to use a different tool. Blight is not necessarily a cause for demolition, though. Depending on the market, there are lots of other tools that can and should be used to prevent vacant and blighted properties, many of which are more cost effective and less final.

When assessing blight reduction, it is important to adopt a “carrot and stick” mentality. The ‘carrot’ can include allocating resources to encourage rehabilitation of properties, or can include tax incentives for historic buildings and others with significant cultural value. There is not enough demand, however, and often not enough people to rehab every property. There is a balancing act that needs to be acknowledged, and the ‘stick’ can also be important. ‘Sticks’ can include code enforcement, which is both preventative, and, ultimately, less expensive than demolition. Demolition, however, must also be a part of the ‘stick’ mentality, and is ultimately very necessary in some scenarios.

The way that these different tools work together has really got to be a block-by-block approach, though. We don’t want government silos. If we have demolition and rehabilitation people working together, then they can look at the properties and blocks comprehensively. For instance, let’s look at a block with four blighted properties. The first thing we do is ask, “Can anything be fixed by code enforcement?” Code enforcement is preferable because it holds property owners accountable for the condition of their property. Maybe one of the houses is fixed up this way. Then, “Are there resources that we can use to rehab them?” We can bring in a nonprofit CDC and fix up two of the properties. The fourth, however, we just need to demolish. It’s beyond repair, and it’s lowering property values. The market absolutely won’t support it, so demolition makes sense.

We want all of that activity bunched together in time, though, so that they can leverage the value of their combined efforts. Let’s look at the same block when we don’t bring them all together. If the demolition expert comes in and demolishes the one property, but the other properties don’t get fixed up, then years down the road the others may well need to be demolished as well. Alternatively, let’s say that the rehabbers fix up the two buildings, but the worst property is not demolished. Then they’re going to have a hard time selling those two properties. The best way forward is for all parties to talk together and take on a block comprehensively.

BlightThrough new Hardest Hit Funds allocation, communities all over Michigan are enacting major demolition projects. What is the end goal of these projects, and how are they going to be strategic about the process?

MB: Hardest Hit Funds (HHF) have been awarded by the federal Treasury Department to 18 different states in an effort to stabilize property values and to prevent avoidable foreclosures. They have not traditionally been used to fund demolition, but Michigan is changing that. The key phrase in that previous statement for Michigan’s innovative new use of the funds is “prevent avoidable foreclosures.” Michigan is going to use its HHF money for demolitions, but they have to do it in very strategic way with the end goal of preventing foreclosures in mind.

Vacant properties lead to further abandonment and foreclosures in two ways. First, if a vacant building is dangerous, this discourages people from staying in their homes. People will move just because they are concerned for their safety and quality of life. Second, a vacant property will bring down the property values of neighboring houses, so then their property is worth less and they often times can’t sell it, so they are much more likely to walk away. This further abandonment that in turn leads to foreclosure is avoidable if the problem property in question is removed through demolition. If you get rid of that abandoned building, you get rid of its neighbor’s avoidable foreclosure. To prevent avoidable foreclosures, you need to use demolition next to a property that still has value, but if you remove the right building, you can keep the area strong and remove a disincentive for someone to stay in that neighborhood.

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