Episode 4

Vacancy:

The story of our abandoned neighborhoods.

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“Local municipalities absolutely need to be on the frontline of housing stability. Without local municipalities, we're really leaving it to our states and to largely our federal government. And it's just not enough. Housing is quite literally, but also figuratively, the foundation for success. So we need every level of government pitching in to make sure we're doing what's necessary to stabilize our families."

Emily Lundgard, Senior Program Director, Ohio at Enterprise Community Partners

"Housing is quite literally, but also figuratively, the foundation for success."

In this episode

We currently find ourselves at an interesting dichotomy – a dearth of affordable housing while at the same time vacant and abandoned neighborhoods abound.

How did we get here? What role have predatory products and institutional racism historically played in defining and destabilizing areas? And how could population growth (or lack thereof) impact the future of our cities and communities?

In this episode of Changing Places, host Mariam Sobh discusses this and so much more in conversation about our vacant and abandoned neighborhoods with guests Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at Community Progress, Emily Lundgard, Senior Program Director – Ohio at Enterprise Community Partners, and Rubia Daniels, a woman who purchased several one Euro homes as part of a Sicilian community’s efforts to revitalize.

Highlights

  • 15:00 Alan Mallach discusses how revival of a neighborhood is more than just the renovation of housing.
  • 25:09 Rubia Daniels shares how the one Euro housing program has brought people from all over the world to build a community in Sicily.
  • 26:29 Emily Lundgard explores how local municipal governments can help build the foundation for success for revitalizing neighborhoods.

Click here to expand transcript

Speaker 1 [00:03] Do you think we should invest more into revitalizing neighborhoods or towns which have been abandoned and left to decay?

Speaker 2 [00:09] If it's an abandoned building, as long as it's in good condition, if the bones of it is really good, I'd be drawn to that too.

Speaker 3 [00:17] I know there's a lot of cities that I guess are abandoned, and some of them have lower populations. But yeah, I think it would be important for whoever's communicating on housing that there's lots of resources and land and areas to live all over the country. But you don't really hear that advertised.

Mariam Sobh [00:38] From Baltimore to Philadelphia to the Rust Belt and beyond, America has a unique crisis on its hands, too much vacant housing with too little demand. From rows of empty, dilapidated housing to fully abandoned neighborhoods, the story of vacant housing in America is the story of what happens when trends and industries change, people move, populations decline, and the built world people once loved is left to decay.

According to the 2020 census, 9. 7% of housing in America was vacant, with some states like Maine and Vermont coming in closer to 20%. This amounts to something like 17 million vacant homes. Moreover, based on currently available numbers, there are about 31 vacant housing units for every one unhoused person in the US. Talk about eye- opening statistics. But what can we do? Or, is there anything to be done? In Italy, according to the Washington Post, 34 municipalities across the country will sell abandoned homes for one euro. Yes, there are certain taxes to pay and renovations must occur within a three to five year period. But if a town can be saved one house at a time, is it worth it?

In the town of Mussomeli, tourism has increased to the thousands, which has spurred an increase in public works, renovations across town, and improvements to local infrastructure. If offering an incentive to buyers willing to accept the risk can work across Italy, can it be replicated in cities and states across the USA? On this episode of Changing Places, I'll speak to Alan Mallach, one of the leaders in the field of vacant housing and author of The Empty House Next Door, with additional commentary from Emily Lundgard, a senior program director in Ohio from Enterprise Community, and Rubia Daniel, who has purchased an abandoned home in Italy for one euro.

I'm Mariam Sobh. This is Changing Places. In order to understand how we got here, I'm going to chat with Alan Mallach, one of the leaders in the field of vacant housing. Alan Mallach, welcome to Changing Places.

Alan Mallach [02:58] Glad to be here.

Mariam Sobh [03:00] Alan, I wanted to know from your perspective, how did the US end up with so much vacant housing when housing is unaffordable to so many right now?

Alan Mallach [03:09] That is a long, complicated question. But basically, there's no such thing as an American housing market. There are hundreds of different housing markets. There's rural, urban, coastal, inland, and so forth. And what's happened, especially over the last 50, 60, 70 years, is that more and more people, more and more business, more and more investment has concentrated in some parts of the country and less in others. So what we've got at this point, we've got massive of rural depopulation in this country, and we've got a whole cluster of older cities, in some cases suburbs, where they're thinning out because of whether it's suburbanization, migration, the loss of the old traditional steel mills and car factories, fewer and fewer people want to live. So that's the starting point. We've got a very uneven and in some ways unfair distribution of resources in this country. Now, when you drill down into the specific cities, there are a lot of other things going on. But that's basically where it starts.

Mariam Sobh [04:13] You mentioned this isn't just an American thing, I think if I'm quoting you correctly. So what does it look like if we're looking at other places, Europe, Canada? Are they facing the same problems or is this more uniquely something that we're seeing here historically?

Alan Mallach [04:28] It's not unique to America. I think it's more in the United States. A fair amount of this in the UK, in the north where you had the same kind of migration and loss of the old industries, loss of the coal mines, very much like the United States, some parts of Europe. Interestingly, in Eastern Europe, there's a lot of vacant housing, but you don't really see it most of the time because most of the population lives in these big apartment complexes. And you can walk by a huge apartment building, half of the apartments might be empty, but you'd never know it. So it's a different kind of problem. It doesn't show up the same way. It's when a house is vacant and the owners for whatever reason have basically walked away from it or aren't taking care of it and it becomes a nuisance and it can be vandalized, it can be stripped, that's when it's a problem. Vacancy in itself is not the problem. It's the abandoned houses.

Mariam Sobh [05:28] If we take a look at a city like Youngstown, Ohio or Baltimore, how did these cities wind up with vacancy problems?

Alan Mallach [05:35] Well, there you've got to go back to what happened after World War II. And one thing, remember, there have been low income neighborhoods and difficult neighborhoods in cities ever since there were cities. But all along, they were never vacant. In fact, when you read about the slums of the 19th century, everybody talks about how crowded they were, how full of people they were, so forth. So vacancy is a new thing. And it really started when a couple of things came together. First, you had massive white flight out of the cities. At the same time, you had Black in- migration, what people call the second great migration. But the first thing you got to know is a lot more people left the cities in the '50s, '60s and '70s than came in. So you were going to get some vacancies no matter what else happened, just from that.

But another thing happened which was very important. If you remember, up to the '50s and '60s, most Black people in American cities were forced to live in very limited areas which are known as ghettos. And by the '50s, these ghettos were overcrowded beyond belief. They had terrible housing conditions. There were few home ownership opportunities. And yet there were also places which mixed poor people, rich people, middle class people, working class people altogether. Then, millions of whites left the cities for the suburbs. What happened with the Black community is that they bifurcated. The middle class people, the people who had steady incomes, steady jobs, moved to the areas that were being vacated by middle class white families. And those were generally pretty good areas and they stayed pretty good areas. The lower income people moved to the areas that were being vacated by the poor white families. And those were areas that were already shabby and had decades of little maintenance and crowding. And now, that's what they inherited. And then these areas were disinvested even further.

So what you had was a whole cluster of new low income neighborhoods, which were being disinvested. And of course you had a lot of urban renewal going on at the same time and highway construction. And that created a cluster in just about every American city of neighborhoods with large numbers of vacancies, with concentrated poverty, and for getting literal or no investments from the city or from the state or from the federal government or from the private sector for that matter. So those are the areas of poverty concentration. And they were also segregated. And of course, what we know is that people who could get out of those places, tended to. Those areas have become thinner and thinner out. And what you see when you look at an area like Detroit and you see what they call urban prairies, those are the areas.

Mariam Sobh [08:48] It makes me wonder, just thinking about the poverty concentration and how it's related to housing and things like that, do you think, maybe this is completely off topic, but I'm just curious, do you think fixing a housing situation and neighborhoods would reverse this poverty concentration versus people say we need more jobs or we need this, or we need that, but maybe it's the housing?

Alan Mallach [09:10] It's not just the housing. In fact, I would say obviously fixing housing is good for people. But it's not going to solve the problems because the problems are that, first people do need better jobs, kids need better education. Second, these areas aren't just areas with vacant housing, they're areas that tend to have no investment of any kind. And then you get to the fact that a city like Detroit or Cleveland simply does not have the economy or the housing demand to fill up all these houses. You could fix them at considerable cost, because it costs an awful lot of money once a house has been abandoned and is pretty much stripped, it costs an awful lot of money to put it back to productive use again. But do you have enough people to move into those houses? So what most of the cities have been doing, and I don't like it particularly, but I'm not sure I've got a better suggestion, is demolishing most of these vacant houses to the extent they can come up with the money to do so.

I think some changes are happening. For example, there's an organization in the Chatham area that's doing amazing work in terms of trying to rebuild the market in that neighborhood and rehabbing houses and rehabbing the commercial strips and doing all kinds of stuff. And Chicago, of course, is a kind of in-between city. It's not as strong as say L. A. Or New York or D. C., but it's a lot stronger in terms of the demand in the market than say Youngstown or Cleveland.

Mariam Sobh [10:53] Alan, I'm curious to know what you think could be a few solutions to deal with the crisis we have on our hands right now. But before we dig into that, let's take a short break and hear from Emily Lundgard, a senior program director, Ohio from Enterprise Community with experience in abandoned housing in the Cleveland metropolitan area. We'll be back in a moment.

Emily Lundgard [11:14] There are a few reasons why places like Cleveland and other similar Rust Belt or legacy cities across the country have seen so many vacant and abandoned homes. Cleveland used to be one of the largest cities in the nation, five I think, the fifth largest in the nation. Really relied heavily on things like manufacturing. As that economy changed, the economy is just not meeting folks where they're at any longer. And when we're talking about place in this country, we have to talk about the impact that racism, institutional racism has had in Cleveland, historical segregation and policies that have really just not put the kind of money and resources and effort into our Black and Brown communities. When you look at a map of where vacant and abandoned properties are in the city of Cleveland, that's going to look like a historic redlining map.

So you take those histories and you look at something like the 2008 housing crisis, something that hit all of us, but in a place like Cleveland, you have so many homes that were really mortgaged with predatory products, and these again were in our Black and Brown communities, and those were going to be the communities where we had tax foreclosure, where we had mortgage foreclosure. And those become the homes that are vacant and abandoned. So that's why in a place like Cleveland and our legacy cities, we are seeing so many homes vacant and abandoned, and frankly, we're still recovering from them.

Mariam Sobh [12:55] Stay tuned for the next part. And just a reminder, Changing Places is a podcast brought to you by Avison Young that continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Mariam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share Changing Places with your friends.

Welcome back to Changing Places. Before we get back to my conversation with Alan Mallach, let's hear what folks in Vancouver think about vacant housing.

Speaker 4 [13:28] My only concern with that is if these abandoned neighborhoods or something like that were torn down and then rebuilt, sometimes I feel like the guts and bones of a building were way better back then. I think it would be attractive to me depending on the price point, as well as amenities around me, if it was an abandoned building and then it could just be updated. Because I think the cost would be far less and then you could probably move into it a lot faster than you would by waiting for a rebuild. A rebuild sounds really nice. We've become a society where new is looks shiny or new, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's better from a price point.

Speaker 1 [14:12] What do you think about tearing down a neighborhood and starting again?

Speaker 5 [14:17] Again, I think it's complicated. The local communities that are in these neighborhoods that maybe want to be torn down are not necessarily people we should be pushing out. And what happens when that kind of thing gets done in a way that isn't conscious of the community is usually just capital interest over community interest.

Mariam Sobh [14:39] Now back to my conversation with Alan Mallach, a leader in the field of vacant housing. Alan, before the break, I asked what we can do right now to combat vacant housing in American cities and suburbs. Is there an opportunity to save these houses? Or is there another solution?

Alan Mallach [14:56] Yes, but it's complicated. I think the biggest thing we've got to do is we've got to build more demand in places like Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, and so forth. And some things are happening along those lines. I think you go to Detroit, there are neighborhoods that are reviving. There are people who are fixing up houses. But it's not the whole city. So I think what we need is more efforts along those lines. And that's not just about housing. If you fix up the houses, but you don't fix the fabric of the neighborhood, you're not going to create the kind of long term effects you want.

Now, one of the things that I think is really important, you see this in Detroit, you see this in every city, is to really focus on there's certain neighborhoods which still have a basic fabric intact, where you're seeing vacant houses popping up here, there, one on this block, two on that block and so forth. And those really become incredibly important, because those neighborhoods are a lot easier to put back together again than a neighborhood that's now maybe 40, 50, 60% empty. So I think we need to focus on that.

But we need also to make cities the kinds of places where more people want to live. Lots of young, single people, young couples are moving to cities to live close to downtowns and to have that kind life. But not very many families that have a choice in the sense that they've got enough money to be able to choose between city neighborhoods or suburban neighborhoods and so forth are moving into the cities. And that's a critical piece. We've got to make cities places where people want to live. And just one other thing, fortunately people are focusing about, this issue is a lot about race. An awful lot of the abandoned areas, the disinvested areas are areas that are Black communities or other communities of color. And the disinvestment and the abandonment have a lot to do with the fact was that was where Black people moved. And again, it's good that we're starting to think about this, but we have to recognize this reality and confront it.

Mariam Sobh [17:25] What would you say if you had to choose areas in the US that are winners or losers, let's say, in the race for housing and population? What cities would you put out there?

Alan Mallach [17:38] We pretty much know who the winners are. The winners, the areas that are growing rapidly, the areas that are getting the investments. There are a cluster of cities on both coasts. There's the Sunbelt, especially Texas. And then there are a couple of places in between, like Denver for example. After that, you're sort of shading into areas that are getting less investment, less population, less growth. Rural areas in this country, not all, but most rural areas in this country would have to fall into the losers category. They're losing population, they're getting very little investment. You go to places like the Great Plains or Appalachia, and they are virtual ghost towns. So that's pretty much the picture. It's not a complicated one.

Mariam Sobh [18:36] Is there enough of a housing demand in some cities to warrant revitalization of their neighborhoods?

Alan Mallach [18:43] Yes and no. If you're talking about all of them, in some cities, probably not, in some of the cities that have lost the most population. If you think about Detroit once had a population of roughly 1. 9 million. Today, I think it's under 700, 000. Now clearly, you're never going to get 1. 2 million people to move back to Detroit. You're never going to build or restore enough housing for that. So cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, St. Louis, Baltimore have to start by acknowledging we are going to be smaller cities than we used to be. We're not going to grow back to whatever we were. And then you have to start looking at which neighborhoods can be saved, which neighborhoods may not be able to. But I think the important thing is there are a lot of neighborhoods that can be saved if we act in a timely fashion to fix up the houses, to improve the infrastructure, to provide decent schools, decent safety. Because there are good houses and good neighborhoods where people will want to live. But if we don't do that, we could end up with more prairies, more vacant houses over the next decade.

Mariam Sobh [20:19] Is there a city that's done this right in revitalizing neighborhoods?

Alan Mallach [20:23] Nobody's done it completely right, but some cities have done some things better. I think one good example was starting about in 2010, thereabouts, Baltimore initiated a program they called Vacant to Value. And basically they figured out a strategy to get vacant houses into the hands of people who would fix them up and put them back to use. And what they found, and this is important, if you can get people those houses, again, in those sort of in between neighborhoods, not everywhere, but in those in between neighborhoods, if you can get small contractors, developers those houses, some for profit, some nonprofit, at a affordable price with clean title, they'll put in their own money to rehab them because there's still enough value in a lot of neighborhoods and cities to do that. So Baltimore, from then for the next eight, 10 years, they were able to get something like 3000 vacant houses put back into productive use without spending more than a small amount of public money. The problem of course is they still had 15, 000 vacant houses left in the rest of the city, because this strategy didn't work everywhere. It didn't work in the areas that had the lowest value and the least demand and the greatest disinvestment. So it was a great program, but it was only a partial success.

Mariam Sobh [22:13] Once again, Emily Lundgard.

Emily Lundgard [22:16] We, in Cleveland and across the state, made a push to create what's called land banks. These are quasi- governmental entities that could take on these properties, hold them, and honestly, for a large part of the last decade had to demolish them. There were so many properties and they were in such poor condition, just in order to stabilize the housing market, to stabilize what could be potentially dangerous homes in a neighborhood. We're also looking at ways to bring those abandoned properties back online. We spent 10- plus years as a city in Cleveland, demolishing vacant and abandoned properties. That was needed. But now we're looking at these new ways of renovating abandoned properties. It's expensive to tear down a home. It can be more expensive to fill an appraisal gap or to renovate an abandoned home. But we're now at a stage where that may be the new frontier for our resources.

Mariam Sobh [23:16] Alan, as we look forward, what does the future hold for these abandoned houses, neighborhoods and the cities in which they reside? Are they actually dead? Can they reinvent themselves? We'll tackle that, but we're going to take a quick break and then we'll discuss it. Before we hear what Alan thinks about the future of abandoned housing, let's hear from Rubia Daniels who bought an abandoned house for one euro in Sicily.

Rubia Daniels [23:40] My name is Rubia Daniels. I started my journey looking into the abandoned houses in Sicily in 2018. My better half saw an article, and he mentioned to me that there was something about one euro houses in Sicily. And within three days, I booked my ticket, got a rental car and a hotel, and I left to Sicily to go to look for myself to see if that was true or false. That's how everything began. I strongly believe that we have to populate existing areas versus trying to develop new areas. So I strong believe that's a way to help the environment using what is ready in place, and also that revitalize areas that have been abandoned.

There's people from all over the world, going there and getting those free houses and using those places to build whatever they desire, whatever dream they might have. So the city is becoming very popular, very vibrant. It's incredible, incredible experience to see people from all over the world with all different backgrounds coming to this one place and building something. I think this is the positive social change. I hope other places embrace the same social changes to put those houses available for people that can come in and contribute to revitalizing the area. I see more and more people moving there now that they have the chance to work remotely. And the city is just, it's changing very rapidly and is becoming a desirable place.

Speaker 6 [25:51] Well, I feel like in cities where there are housing shortages, it's always... Or in the cities that at least I have the experience of dealing with, it's always people in lower economic statuses that get pushed out and displaced either into the suburbs or to places in which social services are not available, creating spaces where risk goes up for those communities. And I think any sort of urban strategy that doesn't take that into consideration is probably going to have effects that aren't very good for those communities.

Mariam Sobh [26:26] Again, Emily Lundgard.

Emily Lundgard [26:30] Local municipalities absolutely need to be on the front line of housing stability. Without local municipalities, we're really leaving it to our states and to largely our federal government. And it's just not enough. Housing is quite literally, but also figuratively, the foundation for success. So we need every level of government pitching in to make sure we're doing what's necessary to stabilize our families. And here's the thing, local municipalities have different tools in their toolbox. They're closer to residents. They're more proximate to families, and they're going to be able to meet communities where they're at in a way that our state government, federal government, or even private lending institutions is never going to be able to do.

Mariam Sobh [27:18] Alan, as we look ahead to the next five years or even 50 years, what do you think we'll see with these abandoned houses?

Alan Mallach [27:24] I think that's going to be difficult. Because if you look at the United States as a whole, one of the most interesting things about the country at the moment demographically is our population growth is slowing down. There are fewer new households. We're admitting fewer immigrants. We're having fewer babies. And that's a long term trend that at least as far as I can tell is probably going to lead the United States into negative population growth probably in about 20 years or so, unless we start taking in a lot more immigrants, and politically that seems like an awfully heavy lift at the moment.

So what that means is overall demand for housing is not going to grow that fast over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. So as long as the basic pattern sticks, which is the concentration in the sort of hotter market areas and not in the others, there's not going to be a huge increase in demand available to be tapped by places like Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis. So this is why I think this point I made earlier about these cities have to start out by accepting they're going to be smaller cities. They're not going to grow back. And then start looking at how can they become healthy, viable cities at a smaller population. And that does mean starting to say, " Okay, we're going to try to rehab houses in this neighborhood because this neighborhood still has its fabric. And maybe in this area, maybe we'll demolish houses and we'll turn this area into park land or community gardens or maybe an urban farm or whatever." But we have to start thinking differently about how cities grow and what these cities are going to be like 10, 20, 30 years down the road. I think a place like St. Louis or Detroit can be a strong, healthy city, but I think they have to rethink what their future is if they're going to get there.

Mariam Sobh [29:49] I'd like to thank my guests Alan Mallach, Emily Lundgard, and Rubia Daniels for giving us insight and much to consider on this episode of Changing Places. As America grapples with a dearth of vacant housing and the US population continues to move to other parts of the country, will this issue ever be resolved? Maybe there will always be a subset of places left behind as people move on. But with so much vacant housing, we may need to reconsider what we are doing for those who are in need of housing and can't get it. While there may not be a one size fits all solution, it could be closer than we think. And to get there, maybe we'll have to agree that in order to save the built world around us, we need to begin to rescue it from becoming a ghost of many lifetimes, birthdays, and happy memories of so long ago. I'm Miriam Sobh, and this is Changing Places.

On our next episode of Changing Places, we are stepping into the metaverse. Strap on your favorite VR headset, choose your favorite avatar, and meet us on the other side of reality, which could one day supplant what we know and understand to be our built world. We'll see you there.

Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton- Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Our producer assistant is Hugh Perkic. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.

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