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Cities Battle the Risks Imposed by Abandoned Homes

Cities nationwide are battling a phenomenon driven in part by the aftermath of the 2008-2009 foreclosure crisis and in part by the population decline of once-robust industrial cities: abandoned homes. In cities from Baltimore, Maryland to Fresno, California, homes are abandoned either because owners who could no longer afford the houses left without selling or because the owners simply moved away…and no buyer has ever stepped up.

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Empty Houses Create Health and Safety Risks

Abandoned homes throughout a city can create a wave of negative effects. The houses become eyesores that can drive down property values throughout the neighborhood. Abandoned homes are frequently vandalized, as copper pipes, wiring, and even heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units may be stolen.

As time goes on, especially in poorer neighborhoods or areas with a high number of vacant homes, the blight spreads. Vacant houses can attract vagrants. They may become centers of drug use, with attendant risks of fire or used needles. Garbage left by vagrants can become a health hazard because garbage pickup and running water often don’t exist in abandoned homes.

Abandoned homes can also attract rodents and other pests. Rodents carry disease and can be a threat to public health in a neighborhood.

Abandoned houses may become fire hazards and centers of crime in a neighborhood.

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City Resources Strained

In city after city, municipal resources have been strained by the effort of dealing with abandoned homes — both the homes themselves and the attendant blight.

In Fresno, California, for example, 62% of the fires that call out the local fire department are vacant house fires. So far in 2018, city firefighters have battled blazes in 13 abandoned dwellings.

Citizens in Fresno are urged to report vacant homes so that the city code against abandoned buildings can be enforced. But many homes are not reported.

In cities with huge numbers of empty homes, municipal resources are even more taxed. The city of Baltimore, Maryland, for example, has more than 16,800 homes vacant. In fact, one resident notes that vacant homes seem to outnumber occupied ones in neighborhood after neighborhood.

Baltimore’s problem is simple. There are more people leaving Baltimore than arriving, and this has been the case for years. When sellers cannot find buyers, they leave.

The city also has a good plan: either tear down abandoned homes or rehab them for occupancy.

But the city’s plan is not being executed with any due speed. The legal process, environmental impact studies, and the pre-construction process all take months if not years. While a house can be torn down relatively quickly, getting all the approvals to do so is a long and winding road.

In addition, people continue to leave the city, creating further vacancies, which further worsens the problem.

Plans to Crack Down

Many municipalities have plans to crack down on the number of abandoned homes. The plans, however, are meeting with mixed success.

In Cleveland, for example, the city instituted a program where residents could call 311 to report an abandoned home. The plan was that the city would respond by boarding up abandoned homes. The 311 system would also let city officials know that homes were abandoned.

Since 2016, 4,600 calls have been made to the 311 number. But complaints abound that the city either doesn’t respond, doesn’t respond promptly, or that the boards are removed by vagrants who simply re-enter the house after the boarding up process is complete.

In a one-month period, a local news organization found that one-third of the homes reported were either not boarded up or had boards removed.

Cleveland currently has an estimated 7,159 homes vacant.

Anchorage, Alaska has recently instituted an aggressive program to fine landlords whose homes are vacant. City officials are optimistic that fining will help reduce the number of foreclosed homes in Anchorage, which currently stands around 100.