The Two Faces of Vacant Housing

We’re big fans of Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the National Housing Institute. Not only has he done some great work around community development, some of it directly concerning Baltimore, he’s also spoken out against the trend of so many in the media and in advocacy to focus on the small number of booming cities like San Francisco or Washington, DC while ignoring the struggles of cities like Baltimore or Saint Louis.

In a recent article for Shelterforce, a publication dedicated to discussing community development, Mallach looks at the two types of neighborhoods facing challenges with vacancies, “hypervacant” and “middle-market” neighborhoods.

Mallach defines a hypervacant community as a census tract where more than twenty percent of all homes are classified as vacant. Prior to the 1990s, such communities were rare. Mallach points to Baltimore where in 1990 only 7.5 percent of all census tracts were hypervacant. By 2010, over 30 percent fit this definition. Detroit and Saint Louis have hypervacancy rates of over 50 percent. The biggest challenge for hypervacant neighborhoods is that, with the exception of predatory investors, the housing market is practically non-existent.

Middle neighborhoods are the second type of area faced with the challenge of vacant homes. Middle neighborhoods were once stable working-class communities. But they were hit hard by the subprime mortgage crisis and the union jobs that were the backbone of these communities no longer exist. Unlike hyper vacant communities, middle neighborhoods do not have blocks of boarded-up buildings and the housing market, while weak, does exist. Some examples of middle neighborhoods can be seen by looking at Baltimore’s Healthy Neighborhoods Program.

According to Mallach, unless a hypervacant neighborhood is located next to a strong anchor institution (Baltimore’s Greenmount West is pointed to as an example) choices are limited and large-scale demolition may be the best option. Mallach notes that while demolition does increase the quality of life for current residents it makes it even less likely that these neighborhoods will ever be rejuvenated as Mallach notes “Gentrification almost never happens in an area where large-scale demolition has removed the traditional close-knit neighborhood physical fabric.”

Cities then face the challenge of what to do with the vacant lots created by demolition. Mallach recommends the creation of community-maintained green spaces as a solution. In particular, he points to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society LandCare program in Philadelphia as an example.

With regards to middle market neighborhoods, the goal is to slow or even reverse the increase in vacant homes. Unlike hypervacant areas these communities still have a functioning housing market where potential homeowners want to move. Strategies that have proven effective in middle market neighborhoods include ensuring existing homeowners can stay in their homes, marketing these neighborhoods, and putting in place programs that assist potential residents with obtaining a mortgage.

We can see many of the strategies discussed above put into place here in Baltimore. The Healthy Neighborhoods program works with middle-market communities through a number of approaches that include marketing neighborhoods, targeting certain blocks for revitalization, and assisting potential homebuyers through purchasing a home.

The Baltimore Green Network Plancalls for an interconnected network of green spaces across Baltimore City communities, especially those neighborhoods with large amounts of vacant lots. The goals of the plan are to create safer and healthier communities, enhance community development, and to create a greener and cleaner environment.

No discussion of Baltimore City’s response to vacant properties would be complete without a mention of the City’s Vacants to Values program. Mallach himself wrote a report on it. This program works well in middle-market neighborhoods where a functional housing market exists, but it doesn’t work so well in the City’s most disinvested neighborhoods where there are no buyers.

In 2016, CPHA held a forum discussing how these programs work together.

The vacancy crisis facing Baltimore and other cities is a complex one with no easy answers. The crisis is one that can be solved, but it will take time, money, innovation, and lots of hard work.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

This article was written by Gregory Friedman. Click here to meet our writing team.

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