More than 100 people turned out to see City of Richmond officials and panelists from Baltimore speak on the state of vacant housing and neighborhood stabilization policy alternatives at a seminar on Friday morning at the Federal Reserve Bank on Byrd Street.
The first panel led off with a presentation by Rachel Flynn, Director of Planning and Development Review (Richmond), on the state of vacant housing in Richmond. The bulk of the vacant houses in Richmond are clustered in the old trolley neighborhoods, which Flynn says saw decline in large part due to the changes in transportation habits and infrastructure through the mid-20th century. Of the 2,400 vacant houses in the city, 1/3 are uninhabitable, 1/3 need some work, and 1/3 could be lived in as-is.
Flynn went on to detail the tools that the city has available to fight vacancy and blight (PDF). One aspect of the fight is using code enforcement as a stick to motivate the neglectful or inaccessible property owner to either fix the property, sell the property, or lose the property. The spot blight program allows the city to get control of vacant properties (such as the Meredith House below). The delinquent tax sale is another means to find new ownership for a house that has been abandoned. As Greg Lukanuski, Assistant Attorney (Richmond), and Bonnie Ashley, Senior Assistant Attorney (Richmond), pointed out later, these processes can both take quite some time and have built-in drawbacks and difficulties.
Richmond also offers a number of carrot programs to motivate blight abatement. These programs are most effective when the property owners are cooperative, but are in areas where there is no market for the property. The lauded Neighborhoods in Bloom program (which offers tax abatement to redeveloped properties) is a prominent example of this. Community development corporations such as Better Housing Coalition and ElderHomes benefit from the tax credits and tax breaks to rehabilitate enough of a targeted area to then create a market for private development.
Lukanuski followed Flynn and spoke on the problems of fighting blight and vacancy using the currently available legal tools. Using the building code as a means to force property maintenance and improvement works well, he said, except when the property owner 1) does not have the financial capability to fix the property, or 2) the property owner can not be reached. The unreachable owner can include inherited properties with myriad owners, out-of-state landlords, and slumlords intentionally avoiding contact.
The second panel featured two speakers from Baltimore, a city famously plagued by vacancy. Jim Kelly, Assistant Professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, led off with a highly anticipated presentation on vacant building receivership. Receivership focusses more on getting a property fixed up, rather than targeting the owner of the property with criminal procedures. The process allows for transfer of the property with a clear title to a new owner who will take on redevelopment of the property. One key difference between this and the current approach in Richmond is that the owner notification process is streamlines and the property owner is not required to appear in court, making the process more nimble. A key target of receivership are owners of vacant, substandard properties that are holding the properties, waiting to profit on the investment of others as the rest of the block or neighborhood comes up around them.
Though the city could be the entity to receive the property, the focus is to get the properties into the hands of developers that will use private money to fix the property. Baltimore has had success with neighborhood stabilization using vacant building receivership with a targeted approach in neighborhoods with between 2-20% vacancy rates. Receivership is effective in areas where there is an existing market for housing and redevelopment can be done successfully one property at a time.
Turning Around Vacant Properties in Greater Richmond
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
August 20, 2010