Smart Demolition Strategy Brings Addition By Subtraction

by | Oct 27, 2014 | Healthy Neighborhoods, Renaissance Reflections

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Good news arrived for Chautauqua County’s neighborhoods and Main streets this month when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office will grant the Chautauqua County Land Bank another $1.3 million to battle vacancy and blight.

This brings the Attorney General’s total commitment to the Land Bank since late last year to $2.8 million – all part of an effort to combat blight statewide with funds received through the National Mortgage Settlement with major banks.

Most of this funding – $2 million – has been dedicated to demolition. Between now and the end of 2016, the Land Bank will use the money to partner with local governments on the demolition of 120 dilapidated residential properties (60 of them in Jamestown) and up to 10 mixed-use properties on commercial corridors throughout the county.

The state’s investment in demolition is a positive sign for cities like Jamestown – a sign that the state and others see targeted demolition as an investment in better neighborhoods and not just an act of throwing good money after bad.

Why should we view demolition as an investment?

For starters, it’s a case of addition by subtraction. When a vacant house festers, not only does its own market value plummet, but so do the market values of surrounding properties. This erodes the tax base, undermines the confidence of neighbors, overburdens police and fire services, and leads to a chain reaction of disinvestment. As the market study in Jamestown’s neighborhood plan revealed, a single blighted house on an otherwise stable street subtracts up to $25,000 from the value of neighboring houses.

Besides the immediate impact of removing a single blighted house, demolition is also a vital part of a wider, long-term strategy to stabilize a weak housing market – one in which insufficient demand and an oversupply of obsolete homes lead to low and stagnant prices that depress reinvestment and keep many people trapped in homes that no longer suit their needs.

These weak market conditions, familiar to many cities that formerly housed a large industrial workforce, have taken decades to develop. In Jamestown, where there are five vacant housing units per 100 residents – a rate slightly higher than Syracuse and Rochester – it will take time to demolish or rehabilitate the city’s nearly 650 chronically vacant housing units, which represent anywhere from 200 to 250 individual structures.

This is why demolishing up to 60 of these homes in Jamestown over the next few years is such a critical step toward market stability. It sharply reduces the oversupply and leads to neighborhoods that are more desirable and have healthier levels of demand.

Of course, demolition isn’t the only step. The Land Bank also works to find qualified buyers and developers for tax foreclosed properties in strategic locations by soliciting proposals and prioritizing buyers who have resources and a solid plan for returning renovated homes to the tax rolls. It also has funding to negotiate with banks to purchase and market mortgage-foreclosed homes that might otherwise sit in limbo for months or years.

And the Land Bank is just one piece of the picture. A diverse toolbox for neighborhood improvement emerges when you link these efforts to the Renaissance Block Challenge and GROW Jamestown initiatives of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation; efforts by groups of neighbors across the city; the City of Jamestown’s housing rehab projects, upgrades to code enforcement technology, and investments in neighborhood infrastructure; and small rehab projects by CHRIC, CODE and other housing agencies.

One of the potential downsides of a large-scale demolition program is the vacant lots that get left behind. But rather than liabilities, these lots should be seen as opportunities for reinvention. That’s why the Land Bank seeks out and has resources to help transfer vacant lots to neighboring property owners, who can use the lots for garages, side yards, and other improvements that lift the value of their property. And it’s willing to work with those who have plans for new development or for gardens and other community-oriented uses that re-use land and revitalize neighborhoods.

Large-scale demolition programs of the past – such as urban renewal in Brooklyn Square – are often viewed today as destructive projects that tore communities apart and left uninspired spaces in their wake.

This new approach has a chance to do the opposite – to stabilize neighborhoods and provide opportunities for creativity. It isn’t the only solution to vacancy and blight in our county – but it’s a big piece of the puzzle, and a piece that’s falling into place at the right time.

-Peter Lombardi

This post originally appeared in The Post-Journal on October 27, 2014, as the JRC’s biweekly Renaissance Reflections feature.

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