Seeing empty homes as an asset, not a liability
Note: Hank Dittmar was a beloved part of CNU and a leader in urban planning, advocacy, and policy. As CEO Lynn Richards expressed, ‘Hank's writing is smart without being elitist, witty and poetic, succinct and often surprising.’ Hank's legacy now lives on in his writing of a new book published by Island Press, My Kind of City.
Detroit has received worldwide attention as a horror story of a city in decline: blocks and blocks of abandoned homes, white flight to the suburban areas, the seeming collapse of an economy of skilled work, and the invention of something called “ruin porn.”
The bankruptcy of the City of Detroit in 2013 warred for headlines with ambitious efforts to get the city back on its feet, spurred by the Kresge Foundation and other philanthropies and one entrepreneur who is helping bring back the downtown. From being an unalloyed tragedy, Detroit is becoming a crucible for testing new ideas about revitalization.
When I visited there for a meeting on streamlining the process of urban development, there was ample evidence of both grassroots regeneration—a market economy springing up, and small businesses taking root—and efforts to combat decline by tearing down what was left of burnt-out neighborhoods. I was pleased to meet architects who had become developers and entrepreneurs.
Just as in England, in many cases the cost of repairing abandoned properties was greater than their market value, and so the City of Detroit proposed massive contracts to raze areas of the city and return them to farmland.
Now comes encouraging news of a Detroit program to take abandoned homes which can be saved into a land bank and then auction them off. The program is coupled with forgivable loans for repairs. Auctions have begun, with notable success, even as the city begins taking abandoned properties into the land bank for evaluation and possible auction. Many people are moving to Detroit as they see it as a place where it is financially possible to make a start with a home and a business.
The idea of auctioning off abandoned properties or selling them for a dollar to people who commit to fix them up and live in them is not new. Baltimore had a program in urban neighborhoods that brought back the Fells Point area, and the Empty Homes Agency has successfully introduced such an effort in Stoke-on-Trent, England.
In England, the number of empty homes has declined, according to the Empty Homes Agency, but many local authorities in the north and the Midlands are still experiencing increases in the number of long-term empty homes. Nationally, there were 635,127 in England in 2013. This does not include a large number of flats above shops in town and neighborhood centers which are kept empty.
The government has dedicated attention to this problem, thanks to campaigning by the Empty Homes Agency and architect and presenter George Clarke, primarily through a £100 million grants program for housing associations and community organizations. Most existing policy and guidance is focused on asking councils to work with property owners, or providing capital to allow agencies to purchase homes, but local authorities have extensive powers up to and including compulsory purchase and enforced sale.
The progress made in reducing the number of empty homes is encouraging but stops short of the kind of combined top down-bottom up effort that is beginning to have such an impact in Detroit. Rather than simply seeing empty homes as a tool for delivering some housing numbers, local authorities might see it as an opportunity to attract young people to come and start businesses. A regeneration strategy might combine an active program to build a bank of empty properties, with efforts to simplify the regulations governing bringing them back into use as homes and live-work units, and access to capital, design expertise and training for repairs. Flexibility to allow people to live in one property and rent one or run another as a work space, would make it possible for many to afford to get on the housing ladder. Architects could become leaders of this effort.
The problem of housing in the UK is not simply a problem of high prices in the South East, it is also about economic imbalance. In an era of austerity, programs that seek to encourage sweat equity, self-rebuilding and regeneration through business start-up should be preferred to top-down schemes. The national government could help by encouraging some local pilot projects and by studying programs that have worked elsewhere.
From My Kind of City: Collected Essays of Hank Dittmar by Hand Dittmar. Copyright © 2019 Henry Eric Dittmar. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. Get 25 percent off Hank’s new book with coupon code CNU25 at checkout by following this link.