The Root Problems of Urban Vacancy

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Brownfields, vacant buildings, empty lots, fenced-off concrete disaster zones, that acre of squalor that smells faintly of rust and death — call them what you will. Cleveland, along with plenty of other Rust Belt cities, have plenty of them. Why? The answers are complex. Some have to do with cleaning up the sites, which may contain hazardous waste. Some have to do with a city budget that only allocates so much money to razing buildings.

But vacant lots and buildings are also allowed to remain perpetual eyesores because of antiquated state laws that, while minor at first glimpse, throw up roadblocks as cities try to deal with the mess.

So argues Jennifer Vey in The New Republic, describing a paper she co-wrote on how "tax foreclosure, land banking, code enforcement, and other areas" handcuff localities.

While many of these laws may seem trifling or arcane, they can be a huge burden for the municipalities governed by them, as they can hamstring local leaders’ ability to minimize distressed properties’ costs—their drag on property values and their ongoing need for basic maintenance—as well as their ability to repurpose them for tax generating development or other uses.

For example, excessively long periods during which tax delinquent owners can redeem their properties by paying the back taxes—as many as five years in some states—and other procedural obstacles to responsible reuse mean that vacant properties can spend years in limbo with unclear, unmarketable title, while others pass from hand to hand through a revolving door of neglect. Even when a property has been long since abandoned by its owners, state laws can make local governments’ ability to acquire and/or dispose of it time-consuming, complicated, and expensive.

The full paper can be found here.

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