Laying the Groundwork For Change: Demolition, Urban Strategy, and Policy Reform

According to the Census, the total number of vacant housing units in the United States grew by over 4.5 million from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 44 percent. While empty houses are everywhere, they are disproportionately found in many older industrial cities, particularly those that have lost much of their population and job base over the past several decades. Boarded houses, abandoned factories and apartment buildings, and vacant storefronts are a common part of the landscape in large cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, and a host of smaller cities such as Flint, Gary, and Youngstown.

Many of these vacant buildings will have to be demolished over the coming years. Some may be too far in disrepair to be restored to productive use; in other cases, the demand or the resources for rehabilitation may not exist. Many of these properties are health and safety hazards, blighting their surroundings and devaluing their neighbors’ properties.  Still others may need to be torn down in order to make way for new redevelopment important to their cities’ future vitality.

Not all empty buildings need to be demolished: Many can be productively reused, either for the same purpose as before or in new and different ways.  At the same time, tearing down those that can’t be reused might not be a high priority, at least in the short term. With limited funds available, localities must be strategic about targeting those demolitions that will most benefit their neighborhoods and residents. Demolition, in short, should not be an end in itself, but rather a step in the process of creating stronger, healthier communities.

The purpose of this paper is to look at demolition in the framework of larger community stabilization and revitalization strategies, and, within that context, to put forth recommendations for how to undertake demolition in the most cost-effective and productive fashion. It conveys three primary messages:

  • Large-scale demolition, thoughtfully and responsibly carried out, is a necessary step in the process of rebuilding the nation’s distressed older cities. This need is driven by two factors: the macro issue of supply and demand, which has led to a vast oversupply of buildings in many cities, and the more micro issue of how vacant abandoned structures impact their blocks and neighborhoods.
  • Demolition is a costly, complicated process.  Demolition is a complex process involving a variety of steps, activities, and regulatory requirements, each of which adds cost to the final outcome.
  • Strategic, cost-effective demolition is vital to stabilizing and revitalizing cities and their neighborhoods.  Given both the critical need for large-scale demolition in many older communities, the costs associated with it, and the limited resources available, policymakers and practitioners need to be strategic in their decisions about which buildings to demolish, and in what areas—while getting more creative about finding the resources needed to do so.

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