U.S. cities push for real estate rebirth

June 15, 2005

National groups join together to assist transformation

Inman News

A consortium of national organizations have joined forces to provide assistance to seven cities that are working to reclaim vacant and abandoned properties and restore vitality and livability to city neighborhoods.

This National Vacant Properties Campaign will bring national experts to assist local officials, nonprofits, and residents adopt strategies for reclaiming streets and neighborhoods, campaign participants announced today.

The cities are: Baltimore, Md., Bridgeport, Conn., Buffalo, N.Y., Indianapolis, Ind., Richmond, Va., Spartanburg, S.C., and Tucson, Ariz. The Campaign is a collaboration of four leading national organizations: Smart Growth America, Local Initiatives Support Corp., the International City/County Management Association, and the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.

"Up to now, cities have struggled in relative isolation to solve their abandonment problems," said Don Chen, executive director for Smart Growth America. "But now they have a community of experts and practitioners to tap into. The Campaign received proposals from over 50 communities seeking assistance, indicating widespread need for the improved strategies and exchange of expertise the Campaign fosters."

The assistance program comes at a time when many cities are recognizing abandoned properties as a formidable obstacle to stabilizing neighborhoods and stimulating their renewal, according to an announcement today. "While portions of America's older cities are seeing a resurgence of investment and a renewed interest in urban living, many continue to be held back by blighted and abandoned properties," said Jennifer Leonard, campaign director.

"Abandoned buildings and vacant lots depress property values, reduce tax revenues, and discourage development, while at the same time acting as fire hazards and magnets for crime," said Robert O'Neill, executive director for the International City/County Management Association.

The National Fire Protection Association says that 6,000 firefighters are injured each year in vacant or abandoned building fires, and in some jurisdictions more than 70 percent of fires originate in abandoned buildings. Crime rates on blocks with open abandoned buildings were twice as high as rates on matched blocks without open buildings. The campaign seeks opportunity in these areas.

Vacant and abandoned properties occupy about 15 percent of the area of the typical large city, more than 12,000 acres on average. This is usable land already connected to urban infrastructure, the announcement states.

Inman News published a recent series of articles detailing a surge in urban infill development and residential growth in some major U.S. cities.

In Baltimore, where the city recently has taken action to acquire 5,000 of its 32,000 vacant properties, the campaign's consultation seeks to help the city improve its ability to manage its inventory of properties, prepare them for redevelopment and track progress. In Richmond, the assistance will support the city's efforts to promote reuse of abandoned properties while also establishing a preventive program. The assistance will build on earlier programs such as Neighborhoods in Bloom, which has returned 200 vacant properties to productive use so far.

The value of the technical assistance ranges from $15,000 to $70,000 per city, and could include roundtable discussions with national experts, consultations by public officials from cities leading effective local programs, and implementation of specific strategies.

"While nonprofit community organizations have made great strides in redeveloping vacant properties, they can achieve far greater impact as part of a city's systematic effort to overcome the legal and economic barriers to reclamation," said Michael Rubinger, president and CEO for the Local Initiatives Support Corp. "The campaign is designed to help cities create those systematic approaches."

A wide variety of cities and towns responded to the campaign's call for assistance. The majority of applicants were from medium-sized communities in the North and the Midwest, with populations of 75,000 and above. But even communities in fast-growing regions, such as Tucson, Ariz., sought help. "A critical element in our assistance is to identify model programs and practices that are relevant for the scope and nature of a community's vacant property problems," said Joseph Schilling, professor in practice with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "Part of our mission is to plant the seeds of revitalization through sharing innovative ideas from around the country."

The National Vacant Properties Campaign was launched in 2003 to advocate for property reclamation and offer technical assistance to communities. It is designed to help local governments and nonprofits throughout the country develop effective solutions to the pervasive problem of property abandonment – from producing cutting-edge research, identifying and disseminating policy innovations and best practices, and presenting model legislation. The Campaign offers fee-for-service technical assistance for local governments, nonprofit organizations, and communities. The Fannie Mae Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Surdna Foundation provide financial support for the campaign.

Copyright 2005 Inman News

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