Benefits of Beautification and Addressing Boarded-Up Housing

by Robin
(Halifax, MA)

1.Where do I find the statistics and research to convince local officials of the benefits of town beautification?

2.Where do I find research and stats on the benefits of addressing boarded up houses and how that effects the value of each house in a neighborhood thus resulting in houses being sold for less and the town earning less in addition and most important the town getting no revenue from the houses boarded up. These are houses sitting for years in some cases.

3.What communities have created effective plans to address boarded up homes? I don't want to reinvent the wheel. There has to be towns that have found success in dealing with the banks and politics behind this issue.

If you know of any resources in MA that would assist me in this research I would be grateful. Also are there college departments that have their students volunteer for this type of project?

Probably too many questions, I just couldn't help it. I am woman on a mission to improve my neighborhood and town that needs a helping hand.

Thank you in advance for any help you are able to provide and if you are unable to provide any help I also understand.

Editors' Reply:

There are never too many community development questions, because the interactions among elements of a community are so complex. So thanks for asking.

Having said that, I don't know that we can give you statistics and research about the costs and benefits of town beautification. Partly that's because you have to set your own goals about how success would look for you.

In one town, removing one billboard and demolishing one building that was falling in on itself would be considered a complete success.

In another place, maybe giving flower boxes and seeds for complementary annuals for the flower boxes would be all that is needed to make the town pop.

In other cities, of course, there are multiple challenges, including vacant buildings, graffiti, ugly signs, crumbling curbs or sidewalks, and commercial buildings where bad vinyl siding is covering up any architectural charm original to the building.

Research tends to focus on something more specific than community beautification. For example, hot topics in research now are the benefits of trees, landscaping, community gardens, and community art programs.

The best we can say to question 1 is to begin with any beautification issues that your local officials do agree with, and set up some numerical goals for the next year. If your town won't officially set the goals, you might need to start a little Beautify Halifax Committee on your own to set the goals and keep score.

For an example of simple and effective counting the results of a beautification campaign, see this site on cleanup of San Diego canyons.

We can give a better answer for question 2. Michigan State University Land Policy Institute studied the benefits of addressing boarded up homes, or more specifically of demolishing boarded up homes. The study found that demolishing more than 400 vacant buildings owned by the Genesee County Land Bank, where Flint, Michigan is located, cost $3.5 million. However, the increase in value of the 26,000 neighboring properties that these 400 were impacting totaled $112 million--for about a $4,300 per house property value increase.

Since a vacant home should be assessed very low, picking up that much tax base at a relatively small cost is a good value for the public sector.

Regarding the next question, the most effective method for addressing many boarded up homes is developing a land bank. A land bank is either a part of a local government or perhaps a separate non-profit corporation whose mission is to restore land to productive use where there is no market for the boarded up property.

If you have many boarded-up homes, and you have a working market for homes in the neighborhood where these houses are located,
your best bet may be a program through which the city or some non-profit entity or community development corporation acquires the property.

Then the new owner would decide among options:

1. Housing renovation, perhaps financed in part by state housing and Community Development Block Grant programs

2. Offering it at a very low rate--perhaps $1 plus recording costs--to next-door neighbors, or

3. Deciding that there is no market for housing in that area and demolishing the building as a way of improving both community appearance and adjoining property values.

But if you have many board-ups, a land bank organization should be formed. This is different from a community land trust, although if you do have a working community land trust, by all means, go talk with them first. Some land banks may be creatures of a community land trust.

Examples of communities with working land trusts or other programs aimed at board-ups in low-market situations include Detroit, Cleveland, Flint and Traverse City in Michigan, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta-Fulton County, New Orleans, and Cook County.

New York has some progressive state laws on land banks, so it's worthwhile looking at old industrial cities there.

In Massachusetts we aren't aware of specific communities to imitate, but we do know that it's worth contacting the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, where some good work and thought on handling vacant properties has been done. They probably can suggest a network in Massachusetts that could give you many ideas, suggestions, and examples.

Although you didn't mention a possible connection between crime and vacant buildings, if there is any linkage at all in your community, it's a potent argument with most elected officials. By the way, the research on crime and vacant buildings presents a mixed picture. The study reached by the link showed that demolition of a vacant building on a block decreased crime on that block, but displaced it to nearby blocks and didn't reduce crime citywide overall.

Your next question about using college students to document the problem should be answered by saying take advantage of any nearby colleges and universities to challenge both students and faculty to help you develop your own statistics on the extent of your problem, the extent to which market solutions are possible, and the likely impacts of demolition as opposed to renovation.

Since usually we are building huggers, we need to explain our interest in demolition. It may be that now is a period in history where the over-supply of housing in certain communities simply cannot be tolerated. With banks becoming stingy and overly cautious about lending, it could be that your community simply cannot tolerate the negative impacts of vacant board-ups on both community appearance and crime.

Targeted demolition could help to stem the over-supply problem and bring back the market for existing housing. Bringing back that market is important to you because you want people to continue to invest in the upkeep and even improvement of their homes.

Having acknowledged the possible benefits of a reduced supply of housing in towns where jobs are not likely to reappear soon, it's important to point out that when you create vacant land, you need a plan for it. Otherwise the vacant land in itself becomes a problem.

The pathway to creative use of vacant buildings and lots may include interim or permanent uses. For example, upon demolition of a boarded-up house, you might start a community garden.

Where there is more than one lot, possibilities include larger-scale operations that we should call urban agriculture, vacant lot or house-next-door programs where neighbors can buy properties at a discount, short-term leases, conveyance to non-profit organizations, and cleanup of any toxic waste or brownfields.

These are some starting places. Among the many organizations working on vacant building and vacant land issues, we especially recommend the Center for Community Progress.

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