The Problem of Abandoned Buildings and Lots
What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover
This guide begins by describing the problem of abandoned buildings and lots, factors that contribute to the problem, and who is responsible for the problem. It then presents a series of questions that will help you analyze the problem. Finally, it reviews several responses to the problem and what is known from research, evaluation, and government practice.
Abandoned buildings and lots are a subcategory of the larger problem of physical disorder in a community. This guide is limited to addressing the harms created by abandoned buildings and lots. Related problems not directly addressed by this guide, each of which requires separate research and analysis, include:
- Abandoned vehicles
- Drive-by shootings
- Drug dealing in open-air markets
- Methamphetamine/illicit drug labs
- Gang activity
- Homeless encampments
- Illegal dumping/hazardous waste discharge
- Illicit sexual activity in public places
- Rave parties
- Street prostitution
- Theft of scrap metal
- Underage drinking
Some of these related problems are discussed in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.
General Description of the Problem
The term "abandoned building" connotes an image of a building that is unoccupied and in a state of grave disrepair, perhaps boarded up, strewn with trash, and scrawled with graffiti. Although a building may possess these attributes, which evoke fear and precipitate decline in a community, it is difficult to legally define "abandoned building" as there is no universal definition. Therefore, it is best to use a broad interpretation that includes a variety of properties and conditions.†
† For example, New Jersey's broad definition of "abandoned" requires a municipal public officer to first determine a property has not been legally occupied for 6 months. If the property meets this minimum threshold, it must also meet any one of the following additional elements to be considered abandoned: 1) it needs rehabilitation in the reasonable judgment of the public officer, and no work has taken place during that 6-month period; 2) construction began but was discontinued before the building was suitable for occupancy or use, and no construction has taken place during that 6-month period; 3) at least one property tax installment is delinquent at the time the public officer makes the determination; or 4) the property is determined a nuisance by the public officer. The determination that a building has been abandoned is interrelated with New Jersey's nuisance statute, which gives the governing body more flexibility in its determination. The definition applies only to buildings, not to vacant land or parcels. (N.J.S.A. 55:19-81, Determination that Property is Abandoned, Title 55 Tenement Houses and Public Housing.)How terms such as "property," "vacant," "lot," "building," "abandoned," and "temporarily vacant" are defined delimits the legal remedies available for abating the problem.† The term "building" is important because accessory structures such as sheds and garages may not be included. To be classified as abandoned, a building must typically be a hazard to the health and welfare of the community; the owner must relinquish his or her rights to the property; and the property must be vacant for a period of time. Accompanying terms such as "evidence of vacancy" and "neighborhood standards" are both technical and legal. These elements make abating the problem more challenging because property laws are more protective of owners real property than say their automobile, which can be easily removed if abandoned.
† For example, the U.S. Postal Service Vacant Address dataset identifies addresses as "vacant" or "no-stat." "Vacant" addresses are those where urban-route delivery staff has noted no mail has been retrieved for 90 or more days. "No-stat" addresses are defined as: 1) rural route addresses vacant for 90 or more days; or 2) addresses for businesses or homes under construction and not yet occupied; or 3) addresses in urban areas identified by a carrier as not likely to be active for some time. The U.S. Census Bureau uses the American Community Survey to categorize vacant properties (Community Research Partners, 2008).
Estimates on Prevalence and Cost
Estimates on the prevalence of abandoned buildings in the United States vary because there is no central clearinghouse of such information, the data are not consistent across jurisdictions, and definitions may vary. Counting abandoned buildings is difficult partly because defining "abandoned building," "vacant lot," and "housing unit" affects how each is counted, and they may be grouped together when they are separate issues. The U.S. Census estimates the number of abandoned properties was 19 million at the end of the first quarter of 2010.1 Many larger cities such as Detroit (33,500 abandoned houses and 12,000 vacant lots), Baltimore (14,000 abandoned houses and 91,000 abandoned residential lots), and Philadelphia (40,000 abandoned houses and lots) have thousands of abandoned properties, but mid-sized and smaller cities such as Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and East St. Louis, Illinois have higher proportions of abandoned buildings and lots.2 Although abandoned buildings are typically an urban problem, suburban locales have seen increases due to bank foreclosures.3
Abandoned houses have become more common in suburban areas due to the increases in bank foreclosures.
Photo Credit: © Bidgee/2012. Creative Commons
There are no national estimates on cost, only select areas based on individual studies.4 In 2008, eight Ohio cities accounted for 25,000 abandoned buildings and lots that cost $15 million in direct city services and $49 million in cumulative lost tax revenue.5 Between 2000 and 2005, St. Louis, Missouri, spent nearly $15.5 million to raze vacant buildings. Philadelphia spends about $1.8 million each year to clean vacant lots.6 In 2010, Detroit was prepared to spend approximately $28 million to raze thousands of abandoned buildings.7
A Crime Attractor and Crime Enabler
Abandoned properties become police problems when they attract crime and disorder. As a crime attractor, abandoned buildings provide cover, concealment, and opportunities for motivated criminals. Criminals are drawn to an abandoned property because it suits their needs and has few controls.8 As its reputation for being a suitable criminal environment becomes known, the property is used by offenders more frequently, which increases crime and disorder conditions. Because no one is present to guard it or to regulate behavior, crime and disorderly conduct may escalate, which gradually erodes the sense of caring and ownership for the property and increases the risk of victimization and offending.9
Harms Caused by Abandoned Buildings and Lots
Blight, Crime, and Fear
Abandoned properties contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of blight: tenants and building owners will not rehabilitate the property when fear and crime exist, and the government cannot reduce fear and crime when the neighborhood is beset by abandoned properties. The properties are indicators of blight that symbolize no one cares about the neighborhood; the message to onlookers is that the area is ungovernable, no one is willing to challenge another's behavior, and the risk of being caught is low. The signs of disorder as well as fear, crime, and social control are thoroughly studied, but whether or not more serious crime inevitably follows is not as well understood.10 Fear of victimization in areas beset by abandoned buildings leads residents to exercise outdoors less frequently, which affects their physical and psychosocial health and increases their feelings of isolation.11 The elderly are particularly fearful when their environment contains vacant buildings.12 Serious violent crimes such as murder, robbery, and sexual assault sometimes occur in or around abandoned buildings and lots.13
Arson and Accidental Fire
Fires may be set deliberately by property owners facing mortgage problems, youth engaging in Halloween mischief, or accidentally by squatters, drug users, homeless who are cooking or keeping warm, or curious unsupervised children playing in the building.14 Fires in vacant lots may be fueled by abandoned vehicles or accumulated trash and are aggravated by dry, overgrown landscape. Fire threatens the surrounding environs and legitimate adjacent properties through the density of structures and is a direct risk to responding police officers and firefighters.15
Fires in abandoned buildings pose a threat to surrounding structures and are a direct risk to responding police officers and firefighters.
Photo Credit: ©2012. Creative Commons.
Burglary and Theft
In a process known as "house stripping," "scavenging," or "urban mining," offenders steal and then sell building components.† The problem is facilitated by scrap-metal buyers and secondhand dealers who ask few questions during the transaction.‡ A common practice in order to sell raw wire for scrap is to burn away the outer coating. This open burning releases airborne pollutants and poses a direct threat to property, air quality, and health. Thieves also risk arrest and injury, particularly electrocution, when dismantling electrical components. When a structures doors and windows are stolen, it is further exposed to inclement weather and quicker deterioration, which devalues the property.
† Components typically include copper pipes and wiring; gutters and leaders; vinyl and aluminum siding; tin or copper roofing and other scrap metal; boilers; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; hot water heaters and other plumbing fixtures; stained glass; cabinetry; appliances; fencing; and doors and windows.
‡ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 58, Theft of Scrap Metal, for further information.
Owners who lose their homes may no longer be able to care for their pets, or their new housing arrangements may not allow pets; consequently, they abandon them.16 In 2009, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reported that between 500,000 and 1 million pets were at risk of abandonment in the United States due to economic problems.17 If the animal dies, the owner may be subject to cruelty charges, and the decaying carcass poses a health hazard.
Owners who lose their homes may also abandon pets that they are no longer able to care for.
Photo Credit: © Michael Rieger/FEMA
Property values decline through disinvestment and reduced commerce, tourism, and aesthetic appeal. Adjacent properties may require higher insurance premiums or be denied casualty insurance altogether. Lower property values command lower property tax revenue, which reduces funding for government services.18 A Philadelphia study showed housing sales prices declined most when the house for sale was within 150 feet of an abandoned building and gradually improved with distance.19
Public health is threatened by feces, illegal dumping, asbestos, lead particles, hazardous waste discharge, and airborne mold. Standing water in pools, hot tubs, and discarded tires breeds mosquitoes and other insects and also poses a drowning risk.20 Overgrown and undeveloped landscapes harbor mice, rats, stray animals, and other vermin. Mosquitoes and vermin are vectors for disease, particularly West Nile Virus, rabies, and various parasites. Public health is indirectly threatened by infectious diseases when the property is used for illicit sex21 and drug use involving needle-sharing.22
Estimated net impact of distance from an abandoned building on sales price.
Source: Research for Democracy. 2001. "Blight Free Philadelphia: A Public-Private Strategy to Create and Enhance Neighborhood Value." Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project and Temple University Center for Public Policy, p. 22.
A squatter is "a person who settles on property without any legal claim or title."23 Squatters pose several risks by: 1) illegally connecting existing utilities (water, gas, electricity, and cable), or stealing them from a nearby legitimate property; 2) not having access to sanitary facilities or running water; 3) starting fires to keep warm and to cook; 4) engaging in criminal activity; 5) not paying rent or local property taxes; 6) subjecting themselves to arrest for trespassing or other offenses; 7) provoking encounters with nearby residents who object to their presence and unconventional lifestyle; 8) physically resisting authorities who try to evict them; 9) proffering counterfeit documents as a form of "paper terrorism;" and 10) presenting legal arguments supporting their claim to the property under the adverse possession law doctrine, more commonly known as "squatters rights."†
Squatters have been known to take advantage of the recent increase in empty homes on which banks have foreclosed.
† Some squatters practice "freeganism," an anti-consumerist/anti-capitalist lifestyle characterized by wandering, purchasing very few consumer goods, scavenging for discarded food in dumpsters, wearing secondhand clothes, and living in abandoned buildings (Thomas 2010). Other squatters identify themselves as "sovereign citizens," an anti-government movement whose followers do not recognize government authority, do not pay taxes and do not believe banks are permitted to own land or property. As such, they believe they are entitled to occupy foreclosed or abandoned properties and may proffer counterfeit documents "proving" they own the house. Group members also reject the legitimacy of and defy the authority of courts. The FBI classifies them as a domestic extremist organization that has had violent encounters with police, especially during visits to their homes. Members of the sovereign citizen movement may also refer to themselves as constitutionalists, freemen, militiamen, preamble citizens, common law citizens, and non-foreign/non-resident aliens. For further information, see Anti-Defamation League (2010); Chermak, Freilich, and Shemtob (2009); FBI (2011); and Southern Poverty Law Center (2010).
Legitimate tenants may become homeless when a property owner abandons their property. Children are particularly vulnerable to the stress and instability created by displacement, which affects their friendships, health, and education.24
Trespassing† is a precursor to burglary that occurs when the property is unprotected. Trespassers view unprotected property—both buildings and lots—as available for their use as a shortcut, a hang out, or a place to engage in criminal activity. Unprotected property is also inviting to curious children, who use it as a playground, and homeless people, who use it to establish encampments. Trespassers, particularly children, risk injury and victimization and may generate noise or invade the neighbors privacy.
† Some criminal statutes provide an affirmative defense to trespassing if the building was abandoned at the time of the offense (e.g., N.J.S.A. 2C:18-3 (d)(1), Criminal Trespass, Defenses). Consult with local counsel about the need for a search warrant before entering abandoned properties to conduct fire, health, or code inspections (Holcomb 2008).
Graffiti and broken windows are common acts of vandalism plaguing abandoned buildings. Gangs will "tag" an abandoned building with spray paint to signal it is their territory. Whether malicious or mischievous, vandalism is illegal, devalues the property, induces fear and ruins neighborhood aesthetics.†
† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 9, Graffiti, for further information.
Graffiti is commonly found on abandoned buildings and further devalues the property.
Factors Contributing to Abandoned Buildings and Lots
Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.
There are several reasons why properties are abandoned; however, economic factors are the leading explanation.25
Lending Practices and Foreclosure
Some real-property lending practices, such as adjustable-rate mortgages, interest-only loans, sub-prime lending and contracts for deed, can increase the risk of the borrower being unable to afford to make payments, and, consequently, of property foreclosure.26 Additionally, some lending practices specifically target minority communities with exorbitant closing fees and high interest rates.27 Foreclosure and foreclosure rescue scams may accelerate abandonment, and where foreclosed properties exist there is a tendency for crime to increase.28
Costs of Commercial Compliance and Remediation
Commercial enterprises that sell hazardous materials or use them in their production processes are heavily regulated. Proper licensing, appropriate storage, handling, and disposal of chemicals, and remediating spills can be very expensive, and investing in compliance only increases losses. To avoid compliance and increase profit, some property owners bury, burn, or illegally discharge waste and then abandon the property, leaving behind brownfields† and dangerous environmental conditions. Because the building is uninhabitable and the soil is contaminated, the property then cannot be sold without extensive remediation. Consequently, it stands abandoned and may pose a community health risk. Similar conditions exist for methamphetamine/illicit drug labs that use dangerous chemicals in drug manufacturing.‡
† Brownfields are industrial or commercial properties that remain abandoned, idle, or underused in part because of environmental contamination or the fear of such contamination. Abandoned waste sites may become Environmental Protection Agency superfund cleanup projects.
‡ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 16, Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs, 2nd Ed.
Rising Property Taxes and Tax Delinquency
As property taxes increase, property owners, particularly those who invest to maximize wealth, may invest less in repairs and improvements.29 As the rise continues, property owners may consider defaulting on the mortgage and abandoning the property. When the current mortgage exceeds the property's value, its more likely the owner will abandon the property.
Job Loss and Population Loss
The incidents of abandoned properties increase when homeowners lose their jobs. Unemployed individuals without a transportable or marketable skill are more likely to suffer foreclosure. Some unemployed workers may follow jobs out of state as employment patterns shift. As the population begins to decline, the need for housing units decreases, fewer new units are built, and existing units may be abandoned.30
Older Housing Stock
If an old building has historical or architectural value, its age plays a role in preserving the city's character. But if a building is simply old, it may be rendered obsolete by features that limit its functionality and marketability, such as: 1) no off-street parking; 2) small footprint by contemporary standards, fewer bathrooms, and no garage; 3) a small or nonconforming lot; 4) too expensive to rehabilitate or remediate (e.g., lead paint and asbestos abatement; seismic upgrades); 5) too close to an adjacent house; or 6) situated in a mixed-use area among factories, warehouses, junkyards, or stores and subjected to noise, smoke, particulates, and vibration.
Absentee owners do not live in the building they own. They typically collect rent, but fail to invest in property maintenance, install upgrades, or control tenants behavior. Full occupancy overrides safety and order; owners do not exercise control over the space and do not screen tenants before renting to them. As the building deteriorates, respectable tenants move out. The building begins to command lower rent, less desirable tenants move in, and crime and disorder follow. These conditions tend to spread to adjacent areas, which supports the beliefs that "slumlords" contribute to neighborhood decline and initial blight that is left unattended can have adverse consequences on the existing housing market.31
Real Estate Speculators
As portions of a city gentrify, speculators may purchase abandoned buildings and, instead of filling them with low- or moderate-income tenants, purposely leave them empty with the hope of renting to high-income tenants in the future or selling the buildings for a large profit.32 Although the properties are abandoned, the government has little mitigation recourse if the property taxes are current and the properties are maintained.33 Speculators may treat levied fines as the cost of doing business and feel unconcerned that these costs are passed along to future renters or buyers. A variation on speculation is when developers buy empty lots (or lots with buildings that they then raze), and, while waiting for land values to appreciate, convert the lots for short-term income generation and forego any investment in security. As an example, parking lots may crop up in areas for which they are not zoned, and the minimal security may invite other crimes.† Although the parking lot is not technically "abandoned," it can be deemed less than fully protected for its present use, which creates new conditions for police and government agencies to address.
† See Problem-Solving Guide No. 10, Thefts of and From Cars in Parking Facilities.
"Demolition by Neglect"
Some properties may be designated historical landmarks, which are legally protected from demolition. Owners may purposely allow these properties to deteriorate into a safety hazard, and the government or owner must demolish the buildings once they are declared unsafe. This allows property owners to subvert preservation laws and rebuild where they were once precluded by regulation.34
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