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Cascade: No. 60, Winter 2005

Smart Growth America Active on Vacant Property Campaign

As her neighbors pull up stakes, Julia DiFranco of Collinwood, OH, wonders if she’ll be next. “Our neighborhood’s gone to pot,” she laments. “I had never seen a boarded-up house until about five years ago. Now it seems like they’re all over the place … I like my neighborhood and I like my house, but sometimes I think it’s just a matter of time before everybody leaves. I wish something could be done.”

Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done. In 2003, a team of smart-growth, community development, and environmental groups launched the National Vacant Properties Campaign to help communities deal with the plague of property abandonment. The campaign is staffed by Smart Growth America (SGA), Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and is advised by a small network of experts and practitioners. This leadership group contends that derelict properties have crippled communities by becoming eyesores, safety and fire hazards, drags on property values and local investment, and magnets for crime, arson, vermin, and dumping.

Our vision is to help cities eliminate blight, restore economic opportunities, and develop systems to prevent abandonment, better manage vacant properties, and prepare them for re-use. Goals include creating a network of practitioners, policymakers, business leaders, and researchers who will provide technical assistance to communities, and serving as a clearinghouse for the latest research, policy innovations, and best practices.

Our work has taken us to many places like DiFranco’s neighborhood. In the past year, we have assisted the cities of New Orleans, Las Vegas, Buffalo, Savannah, Cleveland and Dayton, OH, and Waterloo, IA. In each case, campaign personnel have conducted workshops and assessments and offered pragmatic recommendations.

Our recent report, Cleveland at the Crossroads: Turning Abandonment into Opportunity (sponsored by Neighborhood Progress Inc.), yielded immediate results. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “Less than three hours [after the report’s release], [Mayor Jane] Campbell publicly embraced the study and made it the foundation for a new Zero Blight Initiative.” The editorial board also weighed in, observing that “Cleveland at the Crossroads tells how this city, like many others across the nation, can make a dent in the problem.”

One of our most important lessons learned is that many communities face common challenges. For example, most smaller jurisdictions do not have the capacity to accurately track their abandoned buildings. Fortunately, several initiatives have created inventorying and tracking systems that use databases and GIS technology to monitor property conditions. Such tools, exemplified by projects like Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles and Chicago’s Neighborhood Early Warning System, have helped city officials gain control over what used to be frustrating guesswork.

Our role has been to disseminate these success stories and tools to practitioners through our website, newsletter, dozens of speeches and panel presentations, and several conferences that we have sponsored. For example, we organized national forums in Washington, D.C., to launch the campaign in 2003 and to develop our research and policy agenda in 2004. Both attracted nearly 100 practitioners, elected officials, policy experts, scholars, and community leaders and generated media coverage and momentum for our efforts. In April 2005, we held a national conference on land-bank authorities in Flint, Michigan, that attracted about 130 participants. In October 2005, we worked with a range of local partners to sponsor the first statewide conference in Columbus, OH, on vacant property reclamation.

Other innovations have occurred in the legislative realm. In the past few years, states such as Michigan and New Jersey have enacted dramatic reforms in their tax-foreclosure procedures — ones that favor the prevention, reclamation, and responsible redevelopment of abandoned and vacant properties. Others have adopted historic preservation tax credits and rehabilitation codes that allow older buildings to be renovated safely but in a less costly manner. Many of our campaign advisors were instrumental in developing and enacting these reforms, and we are all actively bringing these innovations to legislators, state and local officials, and other decision makers in other states and localities.

In 2006, we will be working in an additional seven cities (Indianapolis, Baltimore, Richmond, Tucson, Memphis, Bridgeport, and Spartanburg, SC) and the state of Pennsylvania, and we are working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to expand our audience and expertise. We plan to help officials in New Orleans and Baton Rouge determine how vacant properties can be redeveloped to house families that have been left homeless after Hurricane Katrina.

SGA is also recruiting high-level advisors to help incorporate our campaign into a broader redevelopment agenda — one that focuses on the need and opportunity for rebuilding in a fair, environmentally sound, and economically robust fashion. Leaders of this effort include former governors Christie Todd Whitman and Parris Glendening; former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros; and several mayors and CEOs. The results of these efforts will be major features of the campaign’s national conference in the spring of 2007.

Communities or individuals seeking technical assistance or more information about how to better prevent, manage, and successfully rehabilitate vacant properties may contact Jennifer Leonard, the campaign director, at jleonard@smartgrowthamerica.org or (202) 207-3355, ext. 23. For the latest news, research reports, policy ideas, PowerPoint presentations, and case studies about vacant property reclamation, interested parties can also visit the campaign’s website, www.vacantproperties.org, and SGA’s website, www.smartgrowthamerica.org.