On December 18th, CBS’ 60 Minutes broadcast a story entitled There Goes the Neighborhood about the impact of abandoned properties due to foreclosures and declining home values. The piece focuses on Cleveland, Ohio where Cuyahoga County officials have demolished more than 1,000 homes this year - and plan to demolish 20,000 more - rather than let the blight spread and render nearby homes near worthless.
Although I grew up just outside of Cleveland, I’ve lived away long enough to appreciate that I am in no position to make an informed judgment about whether the decision to demolish these homes is in the interest of Cleveland’s citizens. I know that the market context in Cleveland is very different than in Boston, and perhaps the neighborhood is served by demolishing vacant homes before they become vandalized and blighted, or worse. Deeding the resultant vacant lots over to abutters for open space or community gardens may well help stabilize the value of surrounding properties.
However, there is something so sad that all these homes, many of them sound structures, are being demolished, especially when so many people in Cleveland don’t have a decent home. Beyond that, I believe that aggressive demolition as a defensive response to homes becoming vacant represents a failure in public policy nationwide. We, as citizens, are collectively responsible for this failure.
First, stable homeownership requires appropriate financing, and we failed to provide the necessary oversight and regulation of the lenders, brokers and appraisers who knowingly sold predatory loan products to families who could not afford them. Second, when homeowners got into trouble, whether due to the loan products they bought or the economic calamities they faced, they appealed to lenders who too often refused to modify loans to payment levels borrowers could afford and adjust principal amounts to reflect a home’s current value. We have failed to enact laws that can require lenders to negotiate in good faith with borrowers, and to enact federal bankruptcy reform that will allow homeowners to restructure their debts.
Third, when foreclosure occurred, we failed to protect the residents, both renters and owners, from being evicted. Fourth, we failed to enforce building codes to require the foreclosing lender to better maintain the properties they acquire after foreclosure (or control prior to foreclosure). And fifth, we failed to provide the funding and technical assistance so that nonprofit organizations and individual homebuyers can acquire, renovate, and maintain foreclosed properties so they become an asset to rather than a blight on the neighborhood.
By the time the City of Cleveland, or any other City, is faced with the option of leaving a vacant home to deteriorate or demolishing the home before it deteriorates, we have already lost five opportunities to intervene. Unless we are assured that there is sufficient quality, affordable housing to meet everyone’s needs- and I don’t know of a place where we can have that assurance- demolishing homes rather than preserving and improving them represents a fundamental failure in public policy: in laws and regulations, in code enforcement, in resources, and in political will. The public tools are there if we choose to prioritize them.