The Empty House Next Door: Paper Examines ‘Hypervacancy'

Mike Sorohan

June 07, 2018

Since the Great Recession, cities and rural areas have been grappling with increased housing vacancies--or in many cases, "hypervacancies."

In a new study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, Mass., The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy and Hypervacancy in the United States, researcher Allan Mallach said hypervacancy--defined as areas in which at least one in five properties are vacant within a given area--have disrupted neighborhoods and housing markets.

"Houses sell, if they sell at all, only to investors at rock bottom prices while the neighborhoods become areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment and health problems," Mallach said.

The study ( analyzed U.S. Census and Postal Service data for 15 American cities. It found more than 49 percent of Census tracts in Flint, Mich., suffered from hypervacancy, "with more than a quarter of units vacant in each tract." In Detroit, it was 46 percent; in Gary, Ind., it was 42 percent.

"The problem is on the rise in many American cities," Mallach said.

The report also spotlights increases in the number of properties that have been "effectively abandoned"--unused, empty properties that are neither for sale nor for rent. It reported the number of units that are effectively abandoned has increased nationally from 3.7 million in 2005 to 5.8 million in 2016, an increase of 2.1 million units, "roughly equal to five times the entire housing stock of San Francisco."

Most vacant houses are well maintained, but many are a problem. "Thousands sit empty for years, abandoned by their owners, deteriorating to the point where they cannot be reused without major rehabilitation," the report said. "Many ultimately are demolished, leaving vacant lots in their place."

The report also noted vacancy and abandonment are not only urban problems--rural areas and small towns have a vacancy rate nearly double that of metropolitan areas; rural vacancy problems are particularly severe in many parts of Appalachia, the rural South and the Great Plains states.

But the report also notes these vacant properties can become community assets. "In cities with strong real estate markets, even the most difficult vacant properties are eventually acquired and rehabilitated or redeveloped," it said. "In legacy cities, however, local officials and community leaders recognize that they must take action to reuse or otherwise manage vacant properties in order to mitigate the harm they cause and create the potential for future revival. In recent years, cities, towns, and nonprofit organizations have shown great creativity in confronting the challenges such properties present."

Local governments and nonprofits have developed creative strategies to jump-start housing markets in struggling neighborhoods. "Thousands of vacant commercial and industrial buildings have been restored and turned into apartments, lofts, and condominiums," it said. "In Baltimore, neighborhoods have been revived and old houses have been put back to use. In Cleveland, vacant lots have found new life as community gardens, miniparks and farms."

No single strategy or program can address a city's challenges with vacant and abandoned properties, Mallach said. Instead, cities can build comprehensive strategies by following these recommendations:

--Know the territory. Use available tools to keep track of the number, status and condition of vacant buildings and vacant lots in the city.

--Remove legal impediments in state law to effective reuse of vacant property.

--Enact and apply strong vacant property tools, such as land banks and receiverships.

--Foster more market-driven vacant property reuse programs to ensure that developers and contractors have quick access to suitable vacant properties at realistic prices with clear, marketable title; to create a supply of homes in move-in condition for home buyers; and to provide access to mortgages for qualified buyers.

--Make greening a sustainable, long-term strategy for vacant land reuse.

--Make sure that demolition is part of a larger strategy for revival.

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