The Problem with Calling Neighborhoods with Vacant Properties “Blighted”
March 30, 2023
Picture a neighborhood with numerous run-down homes, vacant lots, and boarded-up buildings, grounds or structure overgrown with vegetation. What word comes to mind to describe those conditions?
For many, that word is “blight.”
Blight is a shorthand term many people use to refer to properties they perceive as problematic in some way: appearing unsafe, visually unpleasant, or a threat to neighborhood property values. They might also describe those blighted properties as “eyesores,” “dilapidated,” “ruined,” or “derelict.” It’s a pervasive word in community revitalization, urban planning, and housing policy.
However, not every vacant property is blighted. And not every vacant property is harmful. In fact, having a few vacant properties is a necessary and normal part of a healthy housing ecosystem. But when vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties become widespread, they change the character of a neighborhood and perpetuate a negative cycle. This intensifies poor living conditions, impacting the economy, community, housing stock, and residents, which in turn fuels more vacancy and abandonment. We call this systemic vacancy: the community experience of widespread vacancy caused by the combined actions of people, policies, and practices. The term “blight” is most commonly used in reference to neighborhoods experiencing systemic vacancy.
So what does “blight” mean and why is it a problematic word?
The first problem is that referring to blight rarely stops at describing properties. For decades, the ambiguous term “blight” has been used to describe entire neighborhoods—including the people who live there. And the definition of blight is hard to pin down, because one might use blight to describe anything they find aesthetically displeasing. As a result, the term has been used as thinly veiled justification to strip low-income Black and Brown residents of businesses, intergenerational wealth, and community—all in the name of urban renewal, blight elimination, and blight eradication.
To call whole areas blighted erases the human beings and culture of those communities. Calling neighborhoods blighted also negates the hard work, like creative placemaking, that residents, artists, institutions, and businesses do to revitalize these communities.
The second problem with using blight to describe vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties is that it is inaccurate: it implies all “blighted properties” are vacant or abandoned. In fact, many properties that could be considered blighted are still occupied. Rental properties with absentee landlords still create dangerous living conditions for tenants and their neighbors. These deteriorated properties harm a community just as much as vacant, abandoned buildings.
Finally, consider the etymology of blight and where it places the blame. The term blight was first used in the sixteenth century to describe botanical disease that led to spreading lesions that decimated crops—something seen as an act of nature, difficult to predict or prevent. So, when applied to properties, the subtext is clear: Blight is random and blameless. But the systemic vacancy that leads to abandoned and deteriorated buildings is anything but random. It is the consequence of a legacy of intentional disinvestment, poverty, unjust policies, and racist systems.
What word should we use instead of “blight”?
No single term works in all cases. The Center for Community Progress avoids using “blight” in our work for all the reasons above. Instead, we use “vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties (VAD)” and “problem properties.” These terms are more accurate and they acknowledge strategies that equitably, efficiently, and effectively get those properties back to productive, community-aligned uses. (Strategies like land banks, strategic code enforcement, delinquent property tax enforcement, vacant land stewardship, and creative placemaking.)
Blight is the word of choice for many people doing community revitalization work because it’s a shorthand that quickly illustrates the problem. But this shorthand can erase the humanity, culture, and history of the people who make up communities when it’s ascribed to entire neighborhoods.
As the only national nonprofit dedicated to helping communities tackle systemic vacancy, Community Progress may reference “blighted properties” across our website to make sure the people who use that word in the context of community revitalization find the resources and help they need. But we urge media, lawmakers, and the community revitalization field to leave the term in the past and focus on the potential in returning collective purpose to properties in the future.
If you’re struggling with vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties in your community, check out our free online resources, webinars, and publications. We also provide customized, expert guidance to state and local governments to assess the state of vacancy in your community and recommend policy and practice solutions for equitable neighborhood revitalization.
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