The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy

June 20, 2018

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

The vacant homes strewn across many American cities create blighted gaps on the landscape. While empty reminders of past development may present community challenges, according to a new report, these properties can also be potential vehicles for change. “The Empty House Next Door,” a new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, examines abandoned and unused properties and offers an accounting of the cost of these buildings on the surrounding areas.

Vacancies skyrocketed with the Great Recession, as the number of unoccupied dwellings rose from 9.5 to 12 million nationally between 2005 and 2010. The number has declined since then, but it is still far higher than it was prior to 2005. “Other vacant” units—a term used by the census to define units that are neither on the market, held for future occupancy, nor used only seasonally—have risen from 3.7 million in 2005 to 5.8 million in 2016.

Vacancy and abandonment are not only urban problems. Rural areas and small towns have a vacancy rate nearly double that of metropolitan areas; rural vacancy problems are particularly severe in many parts of Appalachia, the rural South, and the Great Plains states. The scale and trajectory of vacancy vary widely from city to city.

No single strategy or program can address a city’s challenges with vacant and abandoned properties. Instead, cities can build comprehensive strategies by following these recommendations:

  • Know the territory. Use available tools to keep track of the number, status, and condition of vacant buildings and vacant lots in the city.

  • Remove legal impediments in state law to effective reuse of vacant property.

  • Enact and apply strong vacant property tools, such as land banks and receiverships.

  • Foster more market-driven vacant property reuse programs:

    • to ensure that developers and contractors have quick access to suitable vacant properties at realistic prices with clear, marketable title,

    • to create a supply of homes in move-in condition for home buyers, and

    • to provide access to mortgages for qualified buyers.

  • Make greening a sustainable, long-term strategy for vacant land reuse.

  • Make sure that demolition is part of a larger strategy for revival.

Although vacant properties are a problem, they are first and foremost a symptom of other problems—concentrated poverty, economic decline, and market failure. All those involved with America’s cities need to continue working to rebuild urban economies and focus their efforts on the other elements that make neighborhoods good places to live—safe streets, good schools, accessible jobs and services—as well as on helping the residents of those neighborhoods improve their lives and safeguard their children’s futures.

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