What is Blight?

(Another OregonPEN favorite, Rachel Quednau of StrongTowns.org provides a piece on something that will be an increasingly pressing question in Oregon and America in years to come, as the myth of progress fails.

— Rachel Quednau

Johnny Sanphillipo

There’s a word you’ll hear again and again if you spend time following local politics—especially if you live in a town that is (like most American towns) faced with economic challenges and residents living in poverty. That word is blight.

Here’s a sampling of news articles from the past couple months that employ this word:

Blighted properties have been present in Lafayette for decades. There are abandoned, unused homes that collect no taxes all throughout the parish.” – KLFY News

“Aldermen are recommending that the [Rockford] City Council approve bids worth $206,445 to demolish 29 vacant and abandoned homes. Approval will bring the city that much closer to its goal of removing 100 blighted properties a year, said Mayor Tom McNamara on Monday. […] “But we still have hundreds of properties that have been ranked as blighted in our neighborhoods, so we still have a lot of work to do to decrease blight and increase home ownership,” McNamara said.” – Rockford Register Star

“”These blighted properties make the whole area look bad. If we can get these blighted properties taken care of, even if it’s a few at a time quicker than we were before, I think we’ll see re-development quicker than we have in the past,” said [Waveland Mayor Mike] Smith.” – WLOX News

“Governor John Carney on Thursday signed into law House Bills 187 and 188, bipartisan legislation that give new tools to local governments to fight neighborhood blight and combat vacant or abandoned homes.” – Delaware.gov

“[Detroit Mayor Mike] Duggan thinks that at the current pace of demolitions he can clear the city’s long-standing blight within five years. Detroit would emerge smaller, but no longer a byword for decline.” – The Economist

The thrust of these sorts of articles and the initiatives they cover is that vacant, crumbling and/or abandoned properties are harmful eyesores that must be eliminated in order for cities to move forward. Demolishing “blighted” properties will make neighborhoods more attractive and might increase home ownership and encourage reinvestment. Vacant buildings can attract criminal activity like drug use. They sometimes pose safety hazards. Getting rid of them is overwhelmingly framed as positive by local governments that often leverage hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to do demolition work (often through state or federal grants).

And yet, there’s something darker that lurks beneath the surface when we talk about “blight.” The word completely disregards the past of a place. When you label something blight, you utterly negate any purpose it may have had and any hope of saving it. It is mere garbage to be discarded.

And it’s not just individual buildings that are labeled as such. Whole blocks and neighborhoods can receive this designation, either officially or by association. Once the label has been applied, it can be a natural progression to start thinking that the people, businesses and institutions that are still alive in these neighborhoods are also blight.

Empty lots in Milwaukee. (Source: Google Maps)

Empty lots in Milwaukee. (Source: Google Maps)

What We Lose

I was at a friend’s parents’ house in Milwaukee for a fundraiser recently. Their neighborhood is in one of the poorer parts of our city and as we pulled up to the house, the amount of empty lots on the block was striking; the street looked like a mouth with half its teeth missing. In a way, there was a peaceful pleasantness about it. The lots had been filled over with grass by now and they sat empty, as if this quiet neighborhood was dotted with dozens of mini-parks. Yet these lots were mostly marked by signs that said “City Property,” “Keep off grass,” and “No Trespassing,” making them a far cry from welcoming public parks.

Are these empty, off-limits spaces better than crumbling homes where drug dealers congregate? Many of the residents around them undoubtedly feel that way and surely the city does too. The grassy lots communicate a message of opportunity—fill this space—rather than a message of decay and disrepair that would likely send a potential developer running in the opposite direction, afraid to tackle mold, sinking foundations and the inevitable rats, cockroaches and other pests.

I wasn’t there to see the houses in this neighborhood before they were torn down and I’m not an architect, so I can’t say whether they were lovely representations of historic architecture, or whether they could have been rehabilitated easily and brought back up to a habitable condition.

I do know, however, that the very organization that my friend was hosting a fundraiser for is also in the process of looking for a building to house its future operations, and that the organizers have been looking into vacant commercial properties, feeling hopeful that these present an excellent opportunity to put in sweat equity in exchange for affordable office space. For a scrappy start-up like this, building from scratch would be financially impossible. Outright demolition of unused or abandoned properties takes that option off the table.

I can also say for certain that these demolition sites were once home to families—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—many of them for decades before they reached the point of being called “blight” and demolished.

As Addison Del Mastro wrote last week on our site, “Our society has developed mourning rituals for people; we have not developed them for buildings.”

The Line Between Destruction and Preservation

What makes one building worth saving and another worth destroying? Of course, there are many technical definitions of what qualifies as historic architecture and merits a designation and the funding that can come with it, but often I think the line between destruction and preservation is simply drawn by people who rally around a building. An old, abandoned home in a popular neighborhood is likely to get either snatched up by a developer and replaced, or vehemently defended by the local historic preservation commission that fights to keep it safe and leverages funding to rehabilitate it. On the other hand, an abandoned home in a low-income neighborhood seems more likely to simply be labeled “blight” and marked for demolition without a second thought.

Combine this with the fact that many abandoned, crumbling homes were formerly rental properties with landlords that may live far away and it’s unsurprising that no one shows up to rally around an old condemned house. As Kea Wilson documented in August, slumlords can easily take advantage of cheap properties, then let them fall into disrepair without suffering any serious consequences.

A shift in perspective can change our opinion on what is “blight” and what is salvageable. In Strong Towns’ Curbside Chat presentation, Chuck Marohn compares two blocks in his hometown (see the video on the right), one of which he labels “Shiny and New” because it’s home to a recently constructed Taco John’s restaurant with accoutrements like native plant landscaping and a freshly paved parking lot.

Chuck labels the other block, which holds decades’ old small retail buildings and neglected sidewalks, “Old and Blighted.” This isn’t because he feels that the block should be torn down; quite the opposite. In the Curbside Chat, he makes a compelling case, showing that the “Old and Blighted” block is performing far better on the tax rolls than the Taco John’s block and should be enhanced and supported. Yet he labels the small retail block “Old and Blighted” because that is how most people in his town see it: a street that looks crappy and deserves to be destroyed.

If you’ve ever attended a Curbside Chat, you know that at this point in the presentation, Chuck asks the audience, “What would you do to spruce up this Old and Blighted block and give it a better future?” A slew of answers are always shared: “Repaint the storefronts.” “Add some benches.” “Plant trees and flowers.” Within a minute or two, the room has brainstormed a dozen ideas for improving the street, all of which together would probably cost less than the signage outside the Taco John. In that moment, the street has gone from “blighted” to “awash in possibilities.”

Of course, a truly dilapidated building like some of the ones that have been demolished in my city will require more than flowers and paint to make it habitable again. And in an already neglected, poor neighborhood, the amount of investment needed to bring that building back up to code is unlikely to materialize. Still, slapping on the “blighted” label seems likely to hasten its destruction rather than providing an opportunity for rehabilitation. It also seems more likely that an resultant redevelopment on the lot will come from a deep-pocketed developer who can afford to construct an entire home from scratch, than from a small-scale, low-income resident of the neighborhood who sees a shot at homeownership built on sweat equity in a rehabilitation opportunity.

What to do About “Blight”

It would be naive to say that every property has a rosy future where it can be renovated and restored, though. Maybe we can think of demolition as one way of moving developments along the line of incremental growth, except instead of a single family home becoming a duplex, it’s a single family home being returned to its original, “before” state—a mere plot of land. One of our core Strong Towns principles is: “Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered.” If a home sits empty and unproductive for years, that is a squandering of land (albeit on a much smaller scale than the parking lots that squander miles of land in our communities).

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Home demolition programs are, by and large, a better solution than letting properties continue to sit vacant, even if they are the easy way outThe Economist reports, “The demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a home 500 feet away by 4.2%, according to one study.” By removing a crumbling home, we make way for something new to appear, whether in the form of a temporary park space or community garden, or a more long-term investment like a new house. We also remove the risk and danger that a deteriorating home creates.

But there is still a loss. It would be helpful to see that loss more thoroughly acknowledged by those who speak about “blight” and a more concerted effort to rehabilitate before destroying.

The label of “blight” is a damaging shortcut. Rather than wholesale referring to buildings and blocks as blighted and calling for their removal, could we instead say, “This building has a damaged foundation that needs to be repaired” or “This structure should be updated” or “This home needs a new owner who will take better care of it”?

A reorientation toward home rehabilitation instead of demolition would, of course, require more funding and more people interested in living in these homes. But in a city like mine that struggles with high rates of homelessness, I think a rehabilitation and housing subsidy would be worthwhile. (After all, in a large-scale study of homelessness solutions, permanent housing subsidy was the most effective method of keeping people out of homelessness).

Cities are complex organisms. We should look at each house as its own entity and decide the best possible future for it, listening to the people who live around it.

Above all, we must use caution in our employment of the word “blight” to ensure that it is not a label that also transfers onto the people who live, work and worship in the neighborhoods dotted with condemned homes. We build strong towns, not by giving up on our neighborhoods, but by lifting up our neighborhoods.