What Is Blight?

October 10, 2017

What makes one building worth saving and another worth destroying? Strong Towns' Rachel Quednau explores the line between destruction and preservation.

The Line Between Destruction and Preservation

What makes one building worth saving and another worth destroying? Of course, there are many technical definitions of what qualifies as historic architecture and merits a designation and the funding that can come with it, but often I think the line between destruction and preservation is simply drawn by people who rally around a building. An old, abandoned home in a popular neighborhood is likely to get either snatched up by a developer and replaced, or vehemently defended by the local historic preservation commission that fights to keep it safe and leverages funding to rehabilitate it. On the other hand, an abandoned home in a low-income neighborhood seems more likely to simply be labeled "blight" and marked for demolition without a second thought.

Combine this with the fact that many abandoned, crumbling homes were formerly rental properties with landlords that may live far away and it's unsurprising that no one shows up to rally around an old condemned house. As Kea Wilson documented in August, slumlords can easily take advantage of cheap properties, then let them fall into disrepair without suffering any serious consequences.

A shift in perspective can change our opinion on what is "blight" and what is salvageable. In Strong Towns' Curbside Chat presentation, Chuck Marohn compares two blocks in his hometown (see the video on the right), one of which he labels "Shiny and New" because it's home to a recently constructed Taco John's restaurant with accoutrements like native plant landscaping and a freshly paved parking lot.

Chuck labels the other block, which holds decades' old small retail buildings and neglected sidewalks, "Old and Blighted." This isn't because he feels that the block should be torn down; quite the opposite. In the Curbside Chat, he makes a compelling case, showing that the "Old and Blighted" block is performing far better on the tax rolls than the Taco John's block and should be enhanced and supported. Yet he labels the small retail block "Old and Blighted" because that is how most people in his town see it: a street that looks crappy and deserves to be destroyed.

Image courtesy of Bullet at Abandoned Florida

If you've ever attended a Curbside Chat, you know that at this point in the presentation, Chuck asks the audience, "What would you do to spruce up this Old and Blighted block and give it a better future?" A slew of answers are always shared: "Repaint the storefronts." "Add some benches." "Plant trees and flowers." Within a minute or two, the room has brainstormed a dozen ideas for improving the street, all of which together would probably cost less than the signage outside the Taco John. In that moment, the street has gone from "blighted" to "awash in possibilities."

Of course, a truly dilapidated building like some of the ones that have been demolished in my city will require more than flowers and paint to make it habitable again. And in an already neglected, poor neighborhood, the amount of investment needed to bring that building back up to code is unlikely to materialize. Still, slapping on the "blighted" label seems likely to hasten its destruction rather than providing an opportunity for rehabilitation. It also seems more likely that an resultant redevelopment on the lot will come from a deep-pocketed developer who can afford to construct an entire home from scratch, than from a small-scale, low-income resident of the neighborhood who sees a shot at homeownership built on sweat equity in a rehabilitation opportunity.

Image: Ennis Davis, AICP

What to do About "Blight"

It would be naive to say that every property has a rosy future where it can be renovated and restored, though. Maybe we can think of demolition as one way of moving developments along the line of incremental growth, except instead of a single family home becoming a duplex, it's a single family home being returned to its original, "before" state—a mere plot of land. One of our core Strong Towns principles is: "Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered." If a home sits empty and unproductive for years, that is a squandering of land (albeit on a much smaller scale than the parking lots that squander miles of land in our communities).

Home demolition programs are, by and large, a better solution than letting properties continue to sit vacant, even if they are the easy way out. The Economist reports, "The demolition of a blighted property increases the value of a home 500 feet away by 4.2%, according to one study." By removing a crumbling home, we make way for something new to appear, whether in the form of a temporary park space or community garden or a more long-term investment like a new house. We also remove the risk and danger that a deteriorating home creates.

But there is still a loss. It would be helpful to see that loss more thoroughly acknowledged by those who speak about "blight" and a more concerted effort to rehabilitate before destroying.

The label of "blight" is a damaging shortcut. Rather than wholesale referring to buildings and blocks as blighted and calling for their removal, could we instead say, "This building has a damaged foundation that needs to be repaired" or "This structure should be updated" or "This home needs a new owner who will take better care of it"?

A reorientation toward home rehabilitation instead of demolition would, of course, require more funding and more people interested in living in these homes. But in a city like mine that struggles with high rates of homelessness, I think a rehabilitation and housing subsidy would be worthwhile. (After all, in a large-scale study of homelessness solutions, permanent housing subsidy was the most effective method of keeping people out of homelessness).

Cities are complex organisms. We should look at each house as its own entity and decide the best possible future for it, listening to the people who live around it.

Above all, we must use caution in our employment of the word "blight" to ensure that it is not a label that also transfers onto the people who live, work and worship in the neighborhoods dotted with condemned homes. We build strong towns, not by giving up on our neighborhoods, but by lifting up our neighborhoods.

Article by Rachel Quednau originally published at Strong Towns.
Rachel Quednau serves as Communications Director for Strong Towns and has been a regular contributor and podcast host for Strong Towns since 2015. Previously, she worked for several organizations fighting to end homelessness at the federal and local levels. Rachel is a Midwesterner currently living in Milwaukee, WI with her husband, Jack. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. You can find her musings on Twitter @rquednau.
Republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Cover image (Mike Field) is of a hall-and-parlor cottage in Jacksonville, Florida's Brooklyn neighborhood. What some see as a dilapidated, boarded up structure, is actually the last remaining link to what was once an extraordinary neighboorhood's past. The Union’s 1st and 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiments, which held Jacksonville against the Confederacy in March 1863, were designated the 33rd and 34th U.S. Colored Infantry. After the conclusion of the Civil War, many former slaves and black soldiers of the 33rd and 34th (known as 'Buffalo Soldiers') settled in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Built in 1885, this structure is the last remaining 'Buffalo Solider' house in Florida. Although many assume that Jacksonville was always a segregated Southern town, the city was a once-burgeoning home and an entrepreneurial hub for blacks and immigrants until the city burned in the Great Fire of 1901. To read more about the last 'Buffalo Soldier home', read this story.

For a look at some disastrous failures to remove blight, take a look at some of the five worst urban renewal failures from the last 30 years here.

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