Vacancies are overwhelming neighborhoods. To tenants and advocates, they seem deliberate

Vacancies are overwhelming neighborhoods. To tenants and advocates, they seem deliberate

Many would call out “gentrification” upon spotting an out-of-place coffee shop, bike lanes, or organic juicery. They may not be wrong—but what would they say about a vacant building? Would they find it as threatening or problematic?

In the discussion of whose interests are served when cities decide to support new development through tax breaks or zoning—the local designation of what types of buildings can be built in a given area—the onus of gentrification is typically placed on newcomers, the traditionally whiter, younger, and wealthier people who make a neighborhood unrecognizable. This view is justified: It is true that once a neighborhood begins to cater to this crowd, it becomes inaccessible for those who built it.

Those who have seen gentrification take hold of their homes have not only been priced out, but also witnessed cultural landmarks, ethnic grocery stores, and other necessities disappear. Andrew Lee’s explainer on gentrification for Teen Vogue points out that “It’s not that anti-gentrification activists are against nice things for their communities; these organizers say the problem is that often these nice things aren’t actually designed for them, but for their replacements.”

Focusing solely on the end result of gentrification at the expense of how it happened also positions people who have been or could be displaced as pawns rather than agents of their own futures. By looking at gentrification as only what comes after predominantly Black, immigrant, and/or working-class neighborhoods have been gutted, former residents become phantoms. When we jump timelines abruptly from “before gentrification” to “after,” it starts to seem more like a natural consequence than a deeply entrenched political and spatial process.

Investment and disinvestment exist on an axis—where the money is going vs. where it isn’t. This reminds us that cities are often the testing grounds for the ever-increasing privatization of public goods and services. Large-scale changes like gentrification are the product of interrelated social, economic, and cultural factors that occur over time. So when we discuss gentrification, we must have a solid understanding of who opened the doors and how they did it.

The urgency of this ongoing assault means the blame must be accurately placed. It must also be paired with an acknowledgment that gentrification is just one result of generational decisions on behalf of lawmakers and private developers. Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas puts it succinctly: “The core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

Vacancies are a public health issue

Vacancy has become a normal sighting in poor Black and immigrant neighborhoods across American cities. Whether it’s in Los Angeles, Detroit, or Brooklyn, the message is clear: Vacant and decaying homes mean that money has left the neighborhood. Instead of walking down the block to buy fresh food or go to the gym, residents of these areas must invest in a car or take a long transit ride to do those things. This isolation is no accident.

Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood suffered an exodus after the end of de jure segregation (aka Jim Crow), when some residents decided that the best way to improve their family’s situation was to move to formerly all-white neighborhoods. These areas had better schools and bigger homes, satisfying many people’s visions of the American Dream. But for hundreds of formerly thriving neighborhoods, this laid the groundwork for a nightmare. In 2010, South Shore’s population stood at less than 40% of its 1950 peak.

South Shore resident and executive director of the ​​Resident Association of Greater Englewood Aisha Butler told POLITICO, “When we bought our house, there were six more homes on that block. They’re all gone now. It’s almost like a vanishing act.”

Butler had crafted an “exit plan” after gun violence, concerns about school quality, and an attempted robbery made her think twice about staying in her neighborhood. However, after realizing that she could help rebuild the community’s homes and businesses, she decided to remain, claiming, “at the end of the day, all of us just want a community that’s walkable, that is safe, and that we can raise our children in. Unfortunately, on our South and West sides, it’s really difficult to do that.”

People protest in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.

Unlike the gentrification that is most visible today, the draining of South Shore in the 1960s and ’70s did not make room for white yuppies to move in immediately. It instead created a vacuum, leaving behind those residents who couldn’t afford to leave.

According to the August 2021 Community Data Snapshot, South Shore has experienced a 12.3% population decline since 2000, more than double the rate of Chicago as a whole. Up to the $75,000 income threshold, South Shore has comparable income distribution with the city of Chicago. However, above $75,000, South Shore falls behind Chicago significantly.

Disenfranchisement tends to follow these population shifts, as lower-income residential areas are historically targeted for undesirable or environmentally hazardous building projects. In 2020, South Shore residents were shocked and incensed to learn that a shuttered high school would become a police training site with little notification and no community oversight. Increased police presence is not just an inconvenience in Black neighborhoods, people are more likely to be killed by police in poor, segregated neighborhoods. 

Abandonment creates the ideal conditions for a city to close schools and limit public funding. Vacant buildings should raise concern: a community is ruptured and resources are shriveled. This makes room for residents to be sidelined by city leadership or targeted by police based on where they live.

In instances like South Shore, the impact of overwhelming vacancies may not be an immediate repopulation by new people, but to leave the neighborhood on its knees. Those who are viewed as undesirable—people with substance abuse disorders or mental illness, for example—can be corralled far out of sight from new developments. This makes vulnerable people doubly so, exposing them to higher interpersonal crime, police violence, and exploitation by landlords without a community to stand behind them.

It is not uncommon for residents of underpopulated neighborhoods to list crime as one of their main concerns, as well as their main reasons to consider leaving, just as Butler did. One study in Chicago analyzed crime rates in areas where properties were bought by local residents in the quarter in which they were bought and then one year later, leaving adequate time for the lots to be improved by buyers. In just one year, blocks with lots purchased by local buyers saw a 6.8% decrease in crime.

Media and politicians often portray high-vacancy neighborhoods as inherently flawed: if it was a good neighborhood, then people would take better care of it and more people would move in. But abandoned properties have real economic and health impacts on those who live around them.

Throughout the pandemic, everyday institutions such as restaurants and office buildings shuttered. Downtowns across the U.S. and the world felt empty: without commerce and jobs, many decided there was no incentive to live in previously desirable places. And although many city centers have bounced back, there are still odd gaps in high-dollar shopping districts. If this has been discomforting for downtown residents, it is only a glimpse into the experience of those living in outer neighborhoods that have been decompressed by disinvestment for years.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Urban Health illustrates that residents in high-vacancy neighborhoods have to take extra care not to step on hypodermic needles, be hit by debris, or feel ashamed of where they live. As one participant shared, litter begets litter: “If people start putting a tire there, then somebody else will start throwing another tire.”

A view of boarded-up row houses in the Broadway East neighborhood on October 14, 2020, in Baltimore, Maryland. 

But while remaining residents suffer the consequences of abandonment, property owners reap unearned rewards. Earlier this year, a group of advocates proposed a partial solution to rampant vacancies in communities like South Shore, where the commercial vacancy rate hovers around 50% across its three business corridors. The Vacancy Fraud Act (HB4374) would present municipalities, school boards, and other public bodies with a mechanism to file a complaint against landlords who are not actively attempting to lease, sell, or renovate a property. Complaints would go to the county review board, which could ultimately bar property owners from receiving vacancy tax credits until the property is sold or rented out.

The Vacancy Fraud Act follows the proliferation of unscrupulous landlord practices across sectors: leaving properties empty while collecting state tax credits. Practices like this not only put additional pressure on a groaning housing stock but also fosters desolate, dangerous city spaces that grow up around residents most in need of support.

Eyes on the street

Since the earliest studies of American cities, Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street” has been acknowledged as an important safety measure. Simply put, when shopkeepers, grandparents, and gardening residents are out and about, crime is less likely to occur. And while Jacobs did not originally write from a race-conscious lens, the theory can be extended to show how communities can rely on one another for safety rather than calling the police. Empty buildings, unlit sidewalks, and littered lots are the antithesis of this idea. 

The question of safety is often ignored by outsiders discussing Black and brown communities: in fact, the narrative of them being unsafe has become widely accepted. And from the Black Panther Party to the recent movement to defund the police, there have been numerous initiatives to institute community-based safety protocols.

Seniors Against a Fearful Environment (SAFE), a nonprofit founded by the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, was created to protect seniors from mugging and pickpocketing. As one of the party’s survival programs, it met the needs of Black people that were ignored or caused by institutions like the police. Programs like SAFE comprehended that older residents were disproportionately targeted and planned accordingly. This is why a ground-up approach works: community safety demands that the needs of specific groups within a community, from children to English language learners, are understood and met.

Communities like South Shore are most in need of mechanisms to promote public safety—and community-engaged city planning is one tool. Combatting vacancies is a necessary step in fighting for a city’s health, safety, and access to investment in the face of speculation and rising rents.

As with other institutionalized phenomena that seem like poor common-sense (i.e. for-profit health care or filing our own taxes), there is profit to be made from large-scale vacancies. In 2019, New York State passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. The act added new limitations and regulations around raising rent, evicting tenants, and charging late fees. Most notably, it ended the 20% rent increase that landlords could charge if rent-stabilized tenants moved out, which was an enormous source of profit. These new tenant protections were met with retaliation by landlords.

Landlords evade rent stabilization through ‘warehousing’

In New York City, “warehousing” is a popular landlord workaround that is true to its name. In order to deregulate units, they are left empty and deteriorating. Owners wait until legislation changes or until they can “Frankenstein” the apartment by merging it with another unit, legally creating a new, market-rate apartment. In the meantime, existing tenants suffer infestations and leaks, which are left to fester in hopes that they will move out.

The End Apartment Warehousing Coalition, founded in 2019, formed out of long-standing tenant organizations including Los Sures in North Brooklyn and the Cooper Square Committee, and is the oldest anti-displacement organization in the U.S. with over 60 years of work under its belt, according to their website.

The Coalition estimates that New York City landlords are keeping at least 70,000 rent-stabilized units off of the market, contributing to a rental market that is already hostile to low- and middle-income renters. Landlords of luxury, midrange, and low-income buildings have been determined to whittle away the supply of rent-stabilized units in order to charge market-rate rents, which can be 10x the rent-stabilized rate. Harassment, especially aimed at those who do not speak English, is one of many common tactics used to skirt protections.

“[Landlords] were ticked off and wanted to pressure the state to change the law. This became blatant [recently], when they put an article in a paper called the Real Deal, in which they said ‘Governor Hochul, we’d be happy to put 20,000 rent-stabilized apartments back on the market if you change the law,’” founding Coalition member and Manhattan resident Sue Susman said in an interview with Daily Kos.

The part of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act that landlords, acting under an organization called the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), are applying this pressure to is the aforementioned limit on rent increases after a tenant leaves the unit.

The organization, which was formed in 1966, consists of 4,000 owners of 400,000 rent-stabilized properties in New York City, and strives to support housing and advocates for business-friendly policies and regulations.

“Now, are they holding 70,000 or 20,000 apartments, we don’t know because there has been no census,” Susman said. Without the City and State collecting the proper data, it is impossible to enforce legislation like the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act.

At the same time, tenant protections are weakened by the fact that the city cannot outright ban warehousing: forcing property owners to rent out open units would be an unconstitutional taking by the government without compensation.

Hui Chen, another member of the Coalition, lives in what would be considered a luxury building. Even these buildings, which can command higher rents, are subject to warehousing. Chen said that owners of new buildings like his receive tax breaks from 421a, a section in the city’s tax code that provides a tax abatement for 15 years after construction and incremental increases for five years thereafter, known as the “sunset period.”

“The agencies who are supposed to be checking for compliance never do,” Chen said. The State’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal and the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development are known to pass the buck, which leads to frustration for legislators working on behalf of renters.

Lack of government oversight and consequences enables landlords to continue accumulating new homes and storefronts in the next hot neighborhood, regardless of their history. The ambivalence of our system perpetuates an unending cycle of investment and disinvestment, boom and bust. When properties are left to decay, poor and working-class people of color pay the highest price.

Lack of oversight renders policy solutions ineffective

Legislators in Washington, D.C., attempted similar regulation, explicitly targeting “blight.” The term carries baggage from a long history of government-sanctioned displacement during mid-century urban renewal, and here is used in an intentionally broad sense to signify vacant or dilapidated conditions.

In 2017, the D.C. city council passed legislation that taxes blighted and vacant properties at a higher rate than occupied ones: five times and 10 times respectively. And while the measure should be an effective deterrent against vacancies, it is impossible to tell. Thanks to a system error that failed to register vacant or blighted properties under their new classifications, just under 300 of the 3,000 properties slated for a tax hike were taxed above the regular rate.

According to the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), “the department does not have the staffing or resources to meet residents’ requests to evaluate issues with the properties or to consistently inspect the properties to ensure they are properly classified and taxed.” It would appear that the law was doomed from the start if there is not even enough motivation to hire the people required to carry it out. Amid council people’s and residents’ disappointment, there has been no update on how the district plans to ameliorate this oversight.

Meanwhile, residents who advocated for this legislation bear the burden of sinking property values and public safety concerns. And for those residing in majority-Black neighborhoods, D.C.’s inaction multiplies the existing blow to the community and generational wealth.

According to a study published last year by real estate broker Redfin, homes in Black neighborhoods are on average worth $46,000 less than comparable homes in white neighborhoods. In January 2021, Black families had a median home equity of $89,000 compared to a median of $113,000 for white families. Housing is the cornerstone of wealth in the United States, and has long been a site of both oppression and overcoming.

As homeownership declines, Black Americans and other communities of color are made increasingly vulnerable to private interests whose sole interest is profit. Tenant protections and other measures that protect quality of life and encourage investment in these neighborhoods are ultimately what can influence the future of an entire community.

The consequences of past policies like redlining continue to weigh heavily on Black homeowners. The history of this “hazardous” distinction, indicated by red coloring, was that it was given to areas that featured “older homes” or were “industrial.” Neighborhoods that happened to be majority Black were downgraded without exception for “age and inhabitants.” Homes in areas labeled “hazardous” by the federal government in the 1930s have accrued $212,000 less than those in formerly “greenlined” areas.

In the struggle to build wealth in America, Black families are already treading uphill. Cities and states make it even more inaccessible by failing to legislate and enforce regulations to support economic stability, especially in generationally disenfranchised communities.

Even the most basic tool, rent control, is fragile. According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, it is illegal for localities to impose rent control in 25 states. As can be witnessed in New York City, in the states where rent regulation does exist, it is constantly under fire.

We can advocate for development for people, not profit

Gentrification not only ensures that poor Black and brown people will be pushed out of the places they helped build, it also means that their communities will be demolished from the inside out. When cities are planned for profit, only the wealthiest and whitest residents will be catered to, their needs reflected in the private and public priorities of the city. We need to stop the churn between investment and disinvestment and lay the groundwork for equitable, long-term urban futures. This means prioritizing the demands of residents who are systematically shut out from the safety and prosperity that their wealthy white neighbors are guaranteed.

Residents have documented their cases, built movements, and recruited allies. The needle can only be moved if all residents in all cities tap into existing networks, especially those who are not personally impacted.

By serving as housing advocates, hotline volunteers, community gardeners, and holding elected officials accountable, we can each play a part in the equitable growth of our cities. As rental markets become increasingly unpredictable, it is important that all community members understand renter’s rights in their state. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s resource list is one place to start. Organizations like Fair Housing NorCal and BASTA Inc. in Los Angeles are examples of advocacy groups; Search for ones in your city and state and learn how to get involved.   

This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.

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