“What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring really loudly at me.” – Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Parks and Recreation
Trust us, residents care REALLY LOUDLY about vacant and abandoned properties…including big, empty pits that could be the next greatest park in places such as fictional Pawnee, Indiana.
You’ve won the election. You are ready to make change. You can learn from all of those before you (think Shakespeare’s “What’s Past is Prologue”). This is your time to hone in on your vision, your priorities, and your plan for hitting the ground running once you take office. Why not start with those properties that are causing significant harm to your soon-to-be constituents?
Vacant and abandoned properties hurt communities—with studies pointing to negative impacts on everything from crime, to property values, to neighbors’ physical health. Consider making this one of your key issues and priorities and, in return, all of us here at the Center for Community Progress will stand behind you.
Better yet, allow Leslie Knope/Kim Graziani to share a few lessons learned from those across the country who are at the front lines of fighting blight.
1. Address the elephant in the room: Racial and class injustices are at the heart of vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment. Bad decisions have been made and are still being made that hurt people, divide communities, and destroy wealth-building opportunities for past and future generations alike. Be the “elephant healer” and create a safe space for people to address these wrongdoings and move forward together.
2. Make your case: Why should constituents care about vacant and abandoned properties? Listen and capture stories from residents, collect data that can quantify the numbers and economic impact on housing markets, tax base, public safety, and overall well-being. Using stories and data, make this issue everyone’s issue.
3. Embrace public discourse: Bring those who disagree with you to the table. Maybe even break some bread with them! Be an active listener and set yourself apart from those who talk “at” you instead of “with” you.
4. Tear down the silos: Navigating city departments and systems might be downright boring—but no less essential for enabling meaningful change. How can your city be more effective at preventing properties from becoming vacant and abandoned? When was the last time your data people sat with your tax collectors, code enforcement officers, and/or housing developers to discuss how to prioritize and work together to address those properties that are causing the most harm to a community?
5. Cultivate a team of do-ers: Actions (and funding) speak louder than words. Build a team that is willing to eat, sleep, and breathe all things vacancy and abandonment. There are always going to be a million fires to put out in your community, but encouragingfolks to focus on this issue will result in better outcomes. Also, realize that everything cannot and should not be done in city hall – partner, partner, and partner some more. (Consider this formula when deciding what key players to have on your team: visionary + convener + task master + critic = change.)
6. Failing is not an option: It’s a reality. Don’t be afraid to pilot some ideas and go back to the drawing board to tweak as you see fit. Ask residents whether they think it is working and how they think it can be improved.
7. Consider this your new mantra: EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD DESERVES INVESTMENT. It’s not about saying no; it’s about having honest discussion about what type of investment will make the most impact. Targeting is essential and is prudent to address varying market conditions and community realities.
8. Embrace patience, kindness, and authenticity: Remember it’s not always about the destination but more about the journey. Vacancy and abandonment did not happen overnight and therefore will not be solved overnight. Blight is certainly not something to laugh at, but laughter will certainly be needed along the way. The challenge is complex and hard but deserves your focus.
“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter but work is third.” – Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
If all else fails, surround yourself with lots of friends and waffles—and consider all of us here at the Center for Community Progress to be your friends who are glad to be on this journey with you (and also happen to like waffles).