The nation’s vacant homes present an opportunity — and a problem



Ghost town: vacant neighbors, vacant houses

John Strubberg, 64, paints the side of a house in the Old North neighborhood after being stuck in the 1400 block of Chambers Street on Thursday, August 30, 2018. Behind him is a vacant house that was transferred to the city in 2001. Photo by Robert Cohen, [email protected]


Robert Kohen


With the cost of building new homes and rising interest rates, vacant apartments are attracting more attention as they are a shortcut to getting more units onto the market quickly.

But whether vacant apartments are a curse or an opportunity depends on where you live.

As housing affordability falls and rents rise, putting more low-income families at risk of losing their homes, some cities are working to capitalize on unused real estate. But there’s often a mismatch between the location and condition of vacant homes and where they’re needed most: Those in Appalachia may be run-down and in no shape for redevelopment. Vacant apartments in luxurious locations from New Orleans to New England are the second homes of the nation’s elite.

And Americans living in motels, in their cars, or on the streets are often not in the same states — or even the same time zones — as the vacant homes that could be repaired and offered as housing.

“In most parts of the country, the problem of vacant housing is a disaster, and it’s not entirely practical to just give it to the homeless,” said Darrell Owens, policy analyst at California YIMBY, a Sacramento-based group that advocates for more market Evaluate apartments to counteract bottlenecks. “Detroit has long-term vacancies, but it’s not logical or ethical to move people from California to Detroit and say, ‘Here’s your assigned run-down house. Go and take it.’ ”

Homes used by the wealthy for vacations are a sign of extreme income inequality alongside the homeless population in places like New Orleans.

“I walk through my neighborhood and see a lot of houses owned by wealthy people from out of state, the Pied-à-Terres. These residents come to Mardi Gras once a year and take advantage of it,” Nathan Robinson, sociologist and founder of Current Affairs magazine, said in an October transcribed interview for the magazine.

“I have to say, this gets under my skin. It really does, especially when I see this massive homeless population,” he continued.

In popular areas that are unaffordable for service workers, vacant housing can be key to preventing them from becoming homeless.

In Los Angeles, where new apartments can easily rent for more than $5,000 a month, vacant apartments could become a crucial lifeline for low-income families, said Susie Shannon, policy director of Housing Is a Human Right, a division for housing advocacy for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

The organization has bought and repaired 1,400 homes in Los Angeles over the past three and a half years, at a cost of about $100,000 each, she said. That’s a fraction of the $600,000 the city could spend to build a unit of homeless shelters from the ground up.

“We’re setting an example that there’s a faster, cheaper way,” said Shannon. She cited supply statistics that showed 70,000 vacant units in the city, enough to house all of the 42,000 homeless people counted in the city that year, or even the 69,000 throughout Los Angeles County.

Recent clients include a couple with two young children, both of whom work near-minimum-wage jobs. You will now be housed in a motel and await your turn in a rehabilitated unit.

Seasonal tourism houses

Statistics on vacant homes can be confusing, and it is difficult to determine where home reclamation efforts might be fruitful.

According to a 2021 US Census Bureau survey, the highest proportions of total vacant homes are in Maine (20%), Vermont (20%), and Alaska (17%), where summer tourism is creating demand for seasonal housing. The survey defined dwellings as “empty” if no one lived there at the times spread over a year that the census asks questions. According to a Stateline analysis, very few of these homes are reclaimable by other people.

Only about 2% of homes in Maine and Vermont sit vacant because they are abandoned, in need of repairs, or are involved in foreclosures or other legal or family disputes that may be resolvable. The rest are temporary homes or already on the way up for sale or rent, according to detailed census breakdowns released earlier this year for 2021.

Metro areas with the most vacant homes are expensive waterfront resorts – Key West, Florida; Barnstable, Massachusetts on Cape Cod; and Ocean City, New Jersey — suggesting vacant homes are being used for vacationers.

Vacant homes that could be reclaimed are more common in the Deep South and Appalachians, according to the Stateline analysis, where 6% to 7% of homes are vacant because of potentially solvable problems in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia.

In Louisiana, damage from two hurricanes in 2020 helped the Lake Charles area have the highest rate of vacant, dilapidated homes in the nation at about 7%, or 7,200 homes. Mayor Nic Hunter said in a statement to Stateline that he expects 90% to 95% of the city’s vacant homes to be ready for occupancy by the end of this year.

But many of the recoverable jobs are in areas without much demand for housing, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit that advocates for greater repurposing of vacant properties.

“Thousands of homes have been virtually abandoned and left to decay in the states of the Deep South, Appalachia and Plains. These are all areas where supply exceeds demand and more people are leaving than moving in,” says Mallach.

The same applies to low-income areas in Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit, he said.

“The crux of the problem is that in areas with strong housing demand, vacancy rates tend to be low, while in areas with weak demand they remain high, where many, probably most, vacancies require large investments to bring them back to productive use,” Mallach said .

In high-demand areas like San Francisco’s Bay Area, many vacancies are short-lived as owners prepare their homes for the market, while lower-demand areas like Detroit have more vacancies that have lasted for years, according to an Owens analysis of census data Stock , by California YIMBY.

New life for empty houses

Cities like Baltimore, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York are struggling with vacant housing units. In Baltimore, one city proposal is to convert single-family townhouses into apartments to make redevelopment more financially viable, but investors are increasingly interested in vacant homes there anyway. Syracuse charges a fee for vacant residential properties that increases each year to encourage landlords to move back into them.

Abandoned “zombie” homes with unclear ownership wreaked havoc in upstate New York in the 2010s. A 2016 state law requires mortgage lenders to look for vacancies when homeowners default on payments and to perform routine maintenance. The law also helped local governments hire more staff and get more data on homes to avoid future problems.

Some Southern cities, such as Tupelo and Jackson, Mississippi, are demolishing vacant homes and residential and commercial buildings to create more green space and prevent rot and landfills.

And some cities are experimenting with vacancy taxes to discourage vacant housing. Washington, DC pioneered additional taxes on vacant and derelict properties in 2011, causing sticker shock for some homeowners who say their homes were incorrectly listed as vacant. And San Francisco introduced a vacancy tax this month.

“People are fed up with tens of thousands of houses standing empty while thousands of people sleep on the streets,” wrote Dean Preston, a Democratic Socialist member of the San Francisco board of directors, in a tweet after the predicted victory. The tax would be levied on properties that sit vacant more than 182 days a year, raising money for rent subsidies and affordable housing.

About 4,000 housing units could be subject to the tax, which the city estimates could bring in $15 million by 2026, which would have a “small positive effect” if it induces some landlords to rent out apartments rather than pay the tax.

Oakland, California, raised $7 million for homeless relief in its first year, 2019, with its vacancy tax. The tax of up to $6,000 targets homes used less than 50 days a year and was approved in 2018.

Not all renovated apartments are intended for low-income purposes. In the Detroit area, which has the highest raw number of vacant homes for repair in the country at about 12,600 in 2021, some homes have been repaired and flipped for sale at market value.

Kyle Dubay renovated an abandoned, fire-ravaged home in the North End and put it on the market for $475,000, in an area where the median price is around $189,000. Dubay searches vacant houses and other buildings for building materials and found that the 1905 house was in good structural condition, so he decided to purchase and renovate it himself, using materials from historic buildings.

“I think it makes more sense to rebuild a house than tear it down,” Dubay said. “It’s so wasteful. But it is very expensive now, the price of wood is two to three times what it was a few years ago, the plumbing materials are gone, everything is gone.

“The problem with Detroit is that so many homes have been abandoned for so long that they require an insane amount of work.”

©2022 The Pew Charitable Trusts. Visit stateline.org.

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