Making the connection between vacant properties, community wellbeing, and social justice

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Vacancy and Abandonment in Detroit (Credit: Luke Telander for Community Progress, 2015)

In the wake of continued police violence in communities of color across the nation, we have witnessed the strengthening of movements against brutality. With its origins in the events of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, the “Black Lives Matter” movement has pushed the belief that the injustice and violence that Black Americans experience in our everyday interactions with police, community vigilantes, and the criminal justice system must stop.

Subsequently, this activism has opened up a larger dialogue around an understanding that the political, educational, and cultural institutions of American society have failed to recognize and value the lives of Black Americans and must be challenged to do so.

A critical question that has been posed as part of this larger conversation is what factors have hindered these often majority-minority communities in their efforts to provide a safe and supportive environment for residents. While there are diverse elements at play here, many stemming from the deep history of American housing segregation and economic disinvestment, one ill which often characterizes these types of places is the presence of vacant and abandoned properties.

An important aspect of the unrest in Baltimore often commented on by those unfamiliar with the city was the vast number of dilapidated and abandoned structures flanking the streets where the protests took place. Much work has been done to alleviate this problem yet large swaths of the city remain overwhelmed with problem properties that depress local housing values and community wealth, in addition to being havens for local crime and illegal dumping. Despite these facts, vacancy and abandonment are often given much less attention as social justice issues than other urban issues such as gentrification and displacement. While both are crucially important issues to address, it is worth noting that vacancy is a problem in virtually every city across the country, even those experiencing resurgence in population and investment.

So how does the reality of vacancy and abandonment connect to social justice? For me, the answer lies in a discussion I heard as part of my attendance at the PolicyLink Equity Summit this past October. The conversation centered on the idea that social justice and equity work must be thought of as a “movement of movements,” in which the larger social equity goals of economic, social, and political self-determination are achieved via the efforts of the individual parts. I believe that as professionals and policymakers concerned about vacancy and blight there are three concepts that we must ensure are deeply incorporated into our work:

1. Ensure that our work reflects the goals and principles of the greater social justice movement.

As practitioners working in the various fields related to this issue (planning, architecture, law, development, etc.), it can become easy to focus on the technical aspects of urban issues and forget to examine the broader impact that our approaches have on community wellbeing. We often like to focus on concepts such as land banking, walkable street design, and the newest policy aimed at developing strong communities, but forget that these are nothing more than the tools for reaching desired outcomes, not outcomes in and of themselves. Hypothetically, while the intentions behind a land banking or code enforcement strategy often are positive, it is very easy for these tools to be implemented in a manner that is detrimental to communities and their residents. Without an approach centered on the ideals of justice, these tools can ultimately be useless or even damaging to communities dealing with blight. Therefore it is critical that we always center our work of tackling blight on its relationship to justice and equity.

2. Make it known outside of our own circles that vacancy and abandonment is a social justice issue and its existence in our communities should not be tolerated.

I believe that many people see vacant and abandoned properties as a normal (if unfortunate) and intractable reality found in parts of every city. As practitioners, we know that vacancy and blight are not a natural neighborhood condition. We understand that blight is more likely to be the result of historic and modern planning, development, and lending practices. Finally, we know that ensuring overarching social justice goals are met will necessarily require the regeneration of communities impacted by blight. As experts on blight, we must engage people from many different professions and perspectives on the importance of this issue and why their knowledge and support of our work can help change communities in positive ways.

3. Build stronger connections with those pursuing the goals of equity and justice in other fields.

Building on the concept of this work being a part of a greater movement, it is unrealistic for us to think that the problem of vacant and abandoned properties can be solved solely through our work alone. While vacancy is a serious problem for many communities, it is also representative of larger systemic social and economic failings. For us to truly be successful we must work together with those seeking to address contributing causes of abandonment. This means partnering with others to support policies and practices that improve access to jobs with living wages, housing affordability and ownership, educational opportunities, and that tackle the social biases that often underlie these conditions.