Responses to the Problem of Abandoned Buildings and Lots
Analyzing your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem.
It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.
Do not limit yourself to considering only what the police can do. Carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help the police better respond to it. In some cases, you may need to shift the responsibility of responding to those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)
For further information on managing the implementation of response strategies, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 7, Implementing Responses to Problems.
General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
1. Preventing, managing, and reusing abandoned properties. These three components outline the basic strategy for a policy dealing with abandoned properties. A comprehensive approach should incorporate at least some of these complementary measures, which are explained in detail under Specific Responses to Abandoned Properties and Lots. Prevention strategies are aimed at motivating the current owner to maintain the property and remain in the house. Management strategies are aimed at taking appropriate enforcement action: seizing the property, or conveying it to a new owner who can manage it according to the law while working to restore it as a productive tax-generating parcel. Reuse strategies are aimed at restoring the property as a productive community asset by creating a market for it and collecting property taxes.
2. Streamlining and coordinating local bureaucracy, reporting mechanisms, and infrastructure. Lack of coordination, fragmentation, a reactive posture, intermittent attention, little information sharing, and little cross-training among agencies are obstacles to effective responses.35 Coordination is complicated without a real-time, centralized, and fully integrated electronic record-keeping system that is accessible to each department 24 hours a day; most jurisdictions have disparate, stand-alone systems that are not connected or compatible. Broad access to information makes for a more efficient and coordinated strategy as it minimizes the likelihood that different agencies will take conflicting action against the same property. Assess how you can co-locate resources and share information to avoid redundancy, and identify a single coordinator to drive a proactive and comprehensive strategy involving as many agencies as possible beyond the police to address all the dimensions of the problem.36
Agencies and employees that perform well individually will not automatically perform well as part of a group. Each partner in an abandoned property task force brings a unique perspective and certain organizational limitations to the response. Task force members must know each partners assets and limitations, have access to accurate and timely information about the problem, and must know what responses have and have not been effective in the past. Cross-training works best when given before a multi-agency task force begins its work and when it becomes part of a systematic in-service mandate. Creating and delivering the training program is labor intensive; partnering with a nonprofit group to produce and deliver the program can defray costs.
3. Observing due process and developing capacity and support. Following due process—the provisions of state statutes, ordinances, previous court decisions, and process service—minimizes your chance of losing the case in court and instigating a lawsuit against your government. Owners may purposely evade due process to frustrate judicial action. Adopt responses that you are willing and able to implement and make sure you have the capacity and support necessary to sustain a given response to ensure the properties do not regress to their previous state.
Specific Responses to Abandoned Buildings and Lots
4. Physically securing abandoned properties. Mandating that property owners erect fencing around abandoned properties and install barriers to unsecured buildings can make it harder for homeless to establish encampments in vacant lots and for offenders to enter the property. Fencing and other barriers keep offenders off not only the property, but out of the immediate neighborhood. If property owners do not comply, the government may have to secure the property and recoup costs through litigation. Controlling access, however, also makes it harder for officials to reach an encampment, get inside a property to conduct an inspection, or respond to a crime or fire.
Boarding up windows and doors can make it harder for the homeless to establish encampments in vacant buildings.
5. Altering environmental features. Altering the neighborhood layout, including ingress and egress routes for vehicles and pedestrians, traffic patterns, landscaping and lighting, can make it harder for potential victims and offenders to intersect and can keep people away from the target property.37 Altering the environment in a systematic and permanent way and augmenting the changes with video surveillance and signage may: 1) increase the actual effort to commit crimes; 2) increase the perceived risk of committing a crime; 3) deflect people away from the area; and 4) extend natural and formal surveillance.38 The government must weigh the costs and benefits of environmental interventions as it is not likely to recoup its investment from property owners. The changes should be part of a comprehensive reuse strategy.
6. Initiating privatized public nuisance abatement lawsuits. These are legal proceedings brought by private plaintiffs, such as community development corporations (CDC) or neighborhood associations, not governments or individuals. These lawsuits are resource intensive and time consuming, so privatizing them frees the government body to concentrate on delivering services. The best result for new housing units is achieved when CDCs also have a long-term redevelopment strategy, such as a master plan.39, † Because the CDC is private and usually consists of area residents, there is a long-term interest in the outcome. The CDC must be vested with statutory authority to act on behalf of the government, which requires legislative changes and reconciliation with home rule issues.40
† A master plan is a document adopted by the governing body that describes, in detail and with maps, the overall development concept for the city including how existing property will be used and future property development plans.
7. Aggressively enforcing building codes. Property in disrepair is subject to a citation for code violations. Citations may result in fines or court-ordered remediation. Blight-prevention ordinances hold lenders (i.e., banks) responsible for property maintenance once a notice of mortgage default is filed against a vacant building.41 Code enforcement works best when coupled with an organized property-maintenance campaign and a system that allows other property owners to report abandoned buildings and nuisance properties.42 Property owners already in arrears may not respond well to additional financial pressure; fines may precipitate abandonment.‡ Code enforcement does not address properties that are abandoned and maintained with current property taxes and are outside the gambit of systematic economic redevelopment. If code enforcement orders occupants from the building due to unsafe conditions, then state law may require the government to provide relocation assistance, which may be costly.
‡ Other fee-based responses such as vacancy licensing, liability insurance, separate tax on abandoned properties, and "blight penalties" may have similar consequences (Bureau of Justice Assistance n.d., 3–4; Ramsey and Zolna 1991, 605).
8. Establishing a mortgage fraud task force.† A mortgage fraud task force is responsible for: 1) detecting, investigating, and prosecuting fraudulent lending, mortgage scams, and similar financial crimes; 2) pressing for new laws and enhancing existing laws through legislative action; 3) enforcing laws against all parties involved in a mortgage transaction; 4) developing and strengthening business partnerships to eliminate fraudulent lending; and 5) educating the public about fraud surrounding the mortgage process. Creating a task force consisting of local (police and code enforcement), county (prosecutor), state (police, attorney general, consumer fraud, department of commerce), and federal (FBI, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) law enforcement and regulatory agencies with dedicated prosecutors is the best approach. Existing operations and the new task force may compete for resources, which complicates public safety priorities.
† This response was modified from a task force concept operating in the Miami-Dade (Florida) Police Department as expressed to the U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on January 14, 2010.
9. Creating incentives for responsible ownership and occupancy of abandoned buildings. As an example, Officer/Teacher Next Door programs are intended to improve distressed neighborhoods by offering housing incentives such as foreclosed properties to police officers and teachers who agree to move into such neighborhoods. One such program showed mixed results in both Rialto, California, and Spokane, Washington.43 In Rialto, overall crime levels either declined or showed small increases compared to similar sites in that city. The findings in Spokane were not as clear, and neither city experienced declines in drug crimes. Crime declines may be attributed to the density of the housing units in Rialto as opposed to the dispersed nature of housing units in Spokane. The program works best when "revitalization zones" are narrowly defined so housing units are concentrated instead of spread out.
10. Acquiring properties through tax foreclosure. Tax-delinquent property is acquired by the government through the foreclosure process. Once the government owns the property, developers, nonprofit groups, architects, lenders, and appraisers are engaged to create new, or rehabilitate existing, space for housing units, and to encourage commercial investment.44 If the market value of the property does not exceed the cost of the legal proceedings, the government may end up with a negative return. And a real estate speculator who purchases the property may not develop/rehabilitate the property as promised, but keep the taxes current and leave it vacant, hoping to sell it for a profit when the market takes an upturn.
11. Acquiring properties through an order of possession.† When a building is deemed abandoned and sound reasons exist that it should be rehabilitated instead of demolished, the government may apply to the court for an order of possession. This entitles the government to acquire control of the building in an effort to rehabilitate it and return it to productive use. Orders of possession may be used to counter "demolition by neglect" cases. Seeking an order of possession is a lengthy process and is best used when the taxes are current so foreclosure and eminent domain are not options and the government has the resources and willingness to rehabilitate the building in a timely manner.
12. Promoting responsible property ownership through special tax sales. Special tax sales can empower the government to withhold abandoned properties from real estate speculators and instead sell them to entities that can and will reuse them in a manner consistent with the public interest.‡ The law typically grants cities broad flexibility to establish terms of the sale to ensure the entity acquiring the lien will rehabilitate the building as stated in the agreement.§ Special tax sales require authorizing state legislation and may require a local abandoned property list (see response 15). They work best when the government partners with a reputable developer (e.g., local CDC) who will rehabilitate the property consistent with the governments master plan.
† See N.J.S.A. 55:19-84 through 97 of the New Jersey Tenement Houses and Public Housing code as an example.
‡ See N.J.S.A. 55:19-101, Special Tax Sales as an example.
§ Examples of sale terms include: 1) establishing the bidder's qualification and setting performance conditions; 2) establishing minimum bid requirements; 3) creating bid packages and requiring a bid on the entire package instead of individual buildings; 4) selling the liens if the buyer does not fulfill the conditions of the sale; and 5) designating a second qualified bidder to whom the building is sold if the first bidder defaults on the agreement.
13. Acquiring properties through asset forfeiture. A property connected to a criminal conviction may be subject to forfeiture†; e.g., commercial properties such as "budget motels," which, as a class, can be routinely problematic because of their business practices.‡ Property subject to seizure may not be worthwhile if it is out of equity, or if the costs to forfeit the property exceed its value. Before implementation, the government should have a written policy defining the mission and legal boundaries of the forfeiture program and how to evaluate "success."
14. Acquiring properties through eminent domain. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the government's right to appropriate private property for public use.45 The general sequence is: 1) Government declares the property blighted; 2) Blighted property can be condemned; 3) If condemned, the government may proceed to court to finalize transfer to public ownership. Once it owns the property, the jurisdiction will work with developers to restore the blighted area. Condemned property that is contaminated by hazardous materials may cost more to remediate, which is unattractive to developers. Eminent domain is a highly controversial and divisive approach that should have community support before it is undertaken.46
15. Maintaining an abandoned property master list. As a prerequisite to taking legal action, state law may require the government to create and maintain a master list of abandoned properties.§ A master list may enable the government to hold special tax sales and invoke spot blight eminent-domain powers. Maintaining the list is time-consuming and creating the list without authorizing legislation may render it void in court.
16. Acquiring properties through a land bank program. A land bank is a public authority created as a legal and financial conduit to acquire, manage, and dispose of property with the intent to strategically prevent mortgage foreclosure, provide mortgagee education, and restore it as a tax-viable parcel.47 Adjacent homeowners and business owners should be offered the opportunity to purchase and incorporate the parcel as a contiguous side lot or backyard. Nonprofit agencies can reconfigure vacant land for children's playgrounds (KaBOOM!); refurbish abandoned buildings (Habitat for Humanity); create usable space (Center for Community Progress); and help build sustainable communities (Local Initiatives Support Corporation—LISC).† The land bank is typically shared by regional governments and multiple agencies instead of a single jurisdiction. It works best when the transfer process is streamlined and when it is guided by a master plan. Statutory authority, budget control, and transparency must be clear.
† See Response Guide No. 7, Asset Forfeiture.
§ See N.J.S.A. 55:19-54 through 59 of the New Jersey Tenement Houses and Public Housing code as an example.
† See these organizations' respective websites at kaboom.org; habitat.org; communityprogress.net; and lisc.org.
17. Razing abandoned buildings. Demolishing abandoned buildings, particularly those declared unsafe, removes blight, eliminates the source of crime and disorder conditions, and provides a fresh start for the area.48 Razing buildings is costly and is typically a last resort when the government is relatively certain it will not recapture its previous population level and the property can be put to better use. Demolition is best when it is part of a comprehensive redevelopment strategy that includes pursuing state and federal grants and funding for neighborhood revitalization. The government must be willing to absorb the costs associated with demolition until it can sell the property.
18. Registering foreclosed properties. Local ordinances can require trustees and beneficiaries (i.e., lending institutions) who have a legal interest in a foreclosed property to register the property with the government (usually with the police or code enforcement) and assume responsibility for maintenance.†, 49 Failing to register may result in fines or a lien against the property. Registration allows the government to quickly remediate problems and mobilize responsible parties through current contact information, instead of having to track down seemingly "anonymous" owners such as multinational corporations and heirs/beneficiaries. The government must adopt enabling legislation before requiring registration, and upkeep is labor intensive.50 Although lending institutions may be responsible for the property, they are not in the property maintenance business and may challenge the law in court.
† Maintenance typically involves mowing the grass and pulling weeds; shoveling snow and ice; removing trash and graffiti; draining standing water; securing the building or lot.
19. Establishing an abandoned property early warning system. An early warning system is an element of proactive code enforcement.51 The system should capture these indicators of future abandonment, which are collected during periodic inspections: 1) previous fires; 2) a history of unpaid taxes; 3) unabated housing code violations; 4) unreleased liens and attachments; 5) building owners who have a history of abandoning other properties; 6) decreasing utility usage; and 7) increasing vacancy in multi-tenant properties.52 Early identification alerts police officers, firefighters, and code enforcement officers to potential dangers in the building, encourages vigorous monitoring by code enforcement, and stimulates public awareness of the problem. It requires a commitment to keep the database current, which is labor intensive.
20. Educating owners/landlords/place managers to facilitate voluntary compliance. Owners, landlords, and place managers may not be fully aware of their responsibilities, especially with state laws and local ordinances governing property use and land management. Many people who purchase investment properties do not know the applicable laws or how to comply with them. Training may include how to screen tenants, how to spot signs of disorder, the eviction process, and other rights and responsibilities that are explained when property is transferred, new managers are hired, or crime and disorder conditions arise.53 Police, fire, health, and code enforcement must work together so the training materials are complementary.
21. Establishing capital rehabilitation programs. People of lower income may not have the financial means to make needed repairs to their house. Ignoring a structural problem or responding with makeshift repairs leads to risky living (e.g., increased risk of fires from using space heaters and exposure to lead paint and carbon monoxide build-up from a broken furnace) and further deterioration. As problems grow worse and the property value declines, the prospect of abandoning the property becomes more appealing. The government, nonprofit groups and lending institutions partner to develop grants and loan programs to rehabilitate the property. The grants and loans should be linked to foreclosure counseling, which includes avoiding predatory lending practices and foreclosure scams. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments Community Development Block Grant Program is one source. If grants are not available, government funds may have to be encumbered. The government should be willing to place a lien on the property if the borrower defaults on the loan.
22. Conducting public education campaigns.† The public should be informed about three critical issues: prevention, management, and reuse. The message should be: 1) how and where to report abandoned properties and suspicious activity (many calls go to the police who do not have the means to address them); 2) what properties are currently for sale and detailed procedures to acquire them; and 3) the risks and consequences for abandoning a property and how to prevent it. This works best when using multiple media sources (e.g., television, radio, direct mail, Internet, telephone, newspapers, direct solicitations, billboards, and public meetings) in an organized manner with links to different reporting forms, applications, and instructions. A public education campaign can be costly; public service announcements (PSA) are generally free, but coverage may be limited.
§ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns.
23. Creating urban homesteading programs. A shortage of adequate low-income housing and resentment over housing policies in some urban communities may provoke people to retaliate through civil disobedience and squatting, which is illegal. Cities can create affordable housing opportunities through homesteading programs.54 The government acquires foreclosed or abandoned properties, and then, working with homesteading advocates, makes the properties available to those looking for housing. The government offers the properties at or below market value along with nominal funding to rehabilitate the property with the intent of restoring property tax revenue. The new owners agree to occupy the home for a specified period of time and not to sell the property for profit. The government retains the title and has the first right to purchase the property at the cost/investment price instead of market value should the owner decide to sell.
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
24. Conducting government-initiated cosmetic improvement and cleanup campaigns. The government may initiate cleanup efforts by removing hazards and securing the property,55 which makes it more aesthetically appealing and safer.† Improvements include landscaping, removing snow and ice, painting the exterior façade, draining pools and standing water, installing genuine or faux curtains or blinds in front-facing windows, patching the roof, repairing or replacing broken doors and windows, and installing exterior lighting. If doors and windows were previously stolen, then replacing them may entice additional theft. Partnering with a nonprofit group to secure the building, or initiating a low-cost/no-cost cleanup effort using county jail or state prison inmates will keep costs low. The cleanup effort may include "neighborhood dump stations"—with government-sponsored roll-off containers/dumpsters at designated places in the community—as an incentive to reduce illegal dumping at abandoned properties. Cosmetic improvements and cleanup efforts can be a costly and time-consuming short-term intervention. The government should be willing to place a lien on the property and initiate legal proceedings to recover expenses.
† As part of the cleanup effort, remove any incendiary and combustible hazards (i.e., paint, lacquer, solvents) from inside the building; doing so will increase the safety of responding emergency personnel.
25. Conducting additional police patrols and enforcement crackdowns, and continually arresting offenders at problem properties. Additional directed patrols and crackdown operations may provide temporary relief from crime and disorder conditions, which lowers the crime and victimization rate, but the effect may not be long lasting.† Additional patrols and crackdown operations around abandoned properties may compete with other police priorities.
26. Offering property-tax incentives. Property-tax incentives are offered to owners and developers who promise to rehabilitate the property. The government may offer different property-tax options such as abatements or a two-tier system that taxes the land at a higher rate and taxes the improvements at a lower or no rate to relieve some of the financial burden. Developers may have to sign a "statement of intent," which legally binds them to submit a written plan including milestones for development, or face fines, litigation, and property forfeiture. If the property is not developed within a specified time, then the parcel reverts to the government.56 Some developers may not rehabilitate the property as promised; rather, they use the property as a speculative investment waiting for an upturn in the housing market before selling for a profit. Although the developer accrues the tax benefits, the government must be prepared for enforcement and litigation to recoup the losses.
27. Holding property owners criminally liable for illegal conduct on their property. If a criminal conviction is sustained, then any assets connected to the crime may be forfeited, including property.‡ However, arresting property owners for maintaining a nuisance property or for crimes committed on their property may be counterproductive. If owners perceive the government to be "heavy handed," they may retaliate in different ways such as: 1) foregoing revitalization efforts and disinvesting further, which precipitates abandonment; 2) filling the building with undesirable tenants while waiting to sell the property; 3) negotiating with the government to waive outstanding fines and property taxes as a condition of sale, selling the property to a friend or relative, and then buying it back after the fines and tax arrears are settled; 4) gaining favor with politicians who repeal statutes and ordinances that affect them.57
28. Increasing formal surveillance through closed circuit television (CCTV).†Installing CCTV on streets around abandoned properties may increase formal surveillance. CCTV permits surveillance of multiple locations from a secure central location, where a permanent record of the activity can be made for investigation and prosecution. Other benefits include improved place management, improved information gathering, reduced fear of crime and a diffusion of benefits. Supplementing a CCTV program with a publicity campaign and signage may increase the deterrent effect; however, it is difficult to reach the majority of the public to create such a heightened perception of risk. Once offenders learn of the cameras, particularly following a well-publicized incident, they may adjust their behavior, which diminishes the cameras effectiveness. CCTV works best when coupled with other strategies.
29. Operating a specialized housing/problem-property court. Housing court can hear all cases related to tenancy, foreclosure, nuisance abatement, and code violations, which reduces the docket in existing criminal courts and may speed the final disposition. A housing court consolidates judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, who address the problem instead of relying exclusively on assessing fines and prosecuting offenses. Creating a new court may spread existing judicial resources thin, especially in major cities whose courts are already very busy, may necessitate changing court rules at the state level and may require implementing local legislation. Hiring new personnel, purchasing equipment and renting/configuring office space make it costly to implement. Housing court works best when it is part of a comprehensive abatement strategy.
30. Charging service fees for police response. When police services such as responding to calls for service and investigations are deemed "excessive,"‡ some jurisdictions may levy fees against the owner to recoup those expenses. Local ordinance will authorize the government to recover the actual cost of police investigations that occur on abandoned properties. Fees may also extend to fire, health, and code enforcement responses. Charging fees should be part of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate abandoned properties as adding fees on top of an existing financial burden may be ignored. Legal language should be clear and definitive to avoid problems with civil or criminal proceedings.
† See Response Guide No. 1, The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns.
‡ See Response Guide No. 7, Asset Forfeiture.
† See Response Guide No. 4, Video Surveillance of Public Places.
‡ "Excessive" must be statistically determined for each property; see Houston (Texas) ordinance 2006-1124 (p. 4).
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