Timothy Paule’s path to revitalizing vacant lots in his hometown of Detroit started with a persistent cough.
In the fall of 2016, the commercial photographer found himself sick and tired from a cold that wouldn’t quit. After a litany of medicines failed him, someone manning a stall at a local farmers market suggested he turn to raw honey. The natural curative worked: It turns out that honey acts as a cough suppressant, among numerous other medical benefits.
Soon, Paule and fellow Detroit native Nicole Lindsey had another idea based on the restorative power of honey: The city’s neighborhoods, which could use more local, organic food options, were also covered in a patchwork of abandoned and vacant lots, typically overgrown with weeds, wildflowers, and fruit trees left behind by former residents. That synergy—an excess of flowering plants and lots of cheap space for pollinators to make honey—helped birth Detroit Hives, a nonprofit that now runs the city’s only urban apiary, one that was recently featured in a National Geographic documentary.
“When we started around 2016, there were something like 90,000 vacant lots in the city,” says Paule. “They contributed to crime and injury, and we saw this idea as one of the low-cost, sustainable solutions, like urban gardens, that can reactivate spaces that are left behind.”
A collection of 32 beehives at a handful of sites across the city, Detroit Hives works on multiple levels, hosting students science field trips and supplying restaurants like Slow’s BBQ with honey for their barbecue sauce. But Paule sees it as part of a larger movement to turn blighted vacant lots into beautiful spaces—and, potentially, businesses.
The scope of the nation’s empty space
Detroit Hives offers a creative solution for one of the most vexing issues in urban America today: an excess of vacant land.
The intertwined issues of blight, abandonment, vacant lots, and mostly empty city blocks represent the flip side of the dominant narrative of current U.S. growth: Superstar cities, accelerated by tech money and high-end real estate development, are growing too fast, straining transit and housing infrastructure, and causing cities with the highest concentration of opportunity to become overpriced and unaffordable. And those are just the problems faced by the so-called “winners” in the global economy.
The problem of abandoned property—or what scholar Alan Mallach calls “hyper-vacancy”—is concentrated in areas that are losing jobs, investment, and economic opportunity. This isn’t about the occasional surface parking lot downtown or a few empty lots here and there (in cities like Austin or New York, those spots would be instantly seized by developers).
Concentrated in urban areas, especially formerly industrial regions of the country, there’s an archipelago of abandonment spread across the nation. As Hana Schank wrote on Fast Company, empty land has a different meaning depending on which side of the economic divide you stand: “The winners get reclaimed rail lines. The losers get high grass and weeds.”
Vacant properties create financial strain for cities: decreased tax revenue, greater maintenance costs, increased safety and crime issues (which require more spending), and blight that lowers the value of nearby properties. A press release from the St. Louis mayor’s office simply said, “Nothing good happens in a vacant building.”
Hyper-vacancy has become an “epidemic,” says Mallach. The term, which he defined in a paper for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy as neighborhoods where vacant buildings and lots comprise 20 percent of more of the building stock, “define the character of the surrounding area.” By 2010, one out of every two census tracts in Cleveland, Ohio, could be considered hyper-vacant. In 2015, more than 49 percent of census tracts in Flint, Michigan, 46 percent of tracts in Detroit, and 42 percent of tracts in Gary, Indiana, had become extremely hyper-vacant, meaning a quarter of all units were vacant. “The market effectively ceases to function,” at such levels of vacancy, Mallach wrote, adding that, “the neighborhoods become areas of concentrated poverty, unemployment, and health problems.”
To combat these issues, cities across the nation have invested in policy solutions, blight-busting programs, and creative placemaking like the Detroit Hives method. But as Mallach recently told Curbed, vacant property is more a symptom than a cause, and thus requires systemic solutions.
“They’re causes, in that once vacancy starts to happen, it can make things worse,” he says. “But, ultimately, neighborhoods, towns, and cities are really dependent on what’s happening in the larger market and economy. One of the things that’s so frustrating in the U.S. is that you’re seeing larger and larger disparities between those regions making it in the global economy and those that aren’t.”
The solution on a local level, or at least the beginnings of one, requires strategies that help realize the value of vacancy, and see the land for what it is: potential economic value.
“In the end, it’s about being astute about what you can do, ideas that don’t rely on the larger market to change the game,” says Mallach. “You need to be very strategic about what market opportunities exist that you can really jumpstart.”
Policies and plans for these properties have begun to change along those lines, according to Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, who has studied and launched programs invested in changing vacant lots. As she told Next City, “Now, the new policies that have the most long-term impact are less about fixing nuisances or problems and instead seeing land for what it is: real estate. Cities now want to see what ways they have at their disposal to extract value out of their growing inventories of vacant properties.”
How cities have set out to tackle vacant lots
The Great Recession—which worked as a propellant for pre-existing vacancy issues with its massive rates of foreclosure and widespread economic pain—was the beginning of today’s abandoned property crisis. Since then, cities have engaged the issue in a number of ways.
Some of the simplest, but most important, efforts sought to just get a handle on the issue: Numerous cities engaged in efforts to chronicle and chart rates of vacancy, engaging in local data-collection efforts, as well as creating means to get this land out of city control and back into the hands of citizens and investors. More than 150 cities formed land banks to sell lots at dirt-cheap rates, while others created what’s been called “mow-to-own” programs, which transferred ownership rights to whoever made the effort to oversee and care for abandoned lots.
Much of the research done at the city level only highlighted the need for more—and better—solutions. In Toledo, Ohio, a city research project found that vacant property was a drain on city coffers, costing $3.8 million in upkeep and other city expenditures, and $2.7 million in lost tax dollars. But the vacant lots created a much bigger drag on adjacent property, costing an estimated $98.7 million in lost property value, including $2.68 million in lost property tax value. Other studies found similar results: In Columbus, Ohio, researchers found having a vacant building on the block can reduce the value of nearby properties by 20 percent or more, and a 2010 Philadelphia study estimated that vacant properties result in $3.6 billion in reduced household wealth.
A number of new and ongoing initiatives have tried to turn vacant land into opportunities, or at least use the land to serve a greater community purpose. Mallach and Schwartz both admit that it can be hard to judge the efficacy of these programs in just a few years; many times, local residents invested in revitalization projects leave the area or move on to other things, and popular programs like urban gardening or farming take years to really take root. There’s also the issue of making enough progress to stem the tide of abandonment. A program in Baltimore has spent millions of dollars over the last eight years trying to return vacant land to good use, but has only succeeded in moving the official count of vacant buildings from 16,800 in 2010 to 16,500 in 2018.
“People are really doing something, they’re working hard, but they keep slipping,” professor Seema Iyer, a finance and economics expert, told the Baltimore Sun. “It’s like building a levee that’s not high enough to stop the floodwater.”
Programs that have shown great progress tend to combine long-term vision and continued support. Cities like Cleveland and Detroit have created planning guides for reclaiming and revitalizing vacant lots to help investors in the land bank program improve their results. In Philadelphia, a program called LandCare, run by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, works with community groups as part of an expanded, mow-to-own concept. By working with organizations instead of individuals, the initiative makes sure that reclaimed lots don’t lose support. Right now, the program helps take care of roughly 12,000 of the city’s vacant lots, and adds a few hundred every year.
In New York state, the attorney general’s office has established a grant program, Zombies 2.0, to provide municipalities with money to improve code enforcement strategies and become more efficient at dealing with vacant properties, or “zombie homes,” all using funds collected via mortgage settlements.
Mallach also points to a nascent effort in Erie, Pennsylvania, to create a culinary arts district amid an area filled with vacant properties. The idea is to turn empty spaces downtown into a collection of incubators, food courts, and restaurants, and the effort may even seek to tap into Opportunity Zone funding to make it happen.
“Is it going to work? Who knows,” says Mallach. “But we’re talking about a strategic, focused project that’ll shock the market, which is what it takes. You need something dramatic to change the game.”
Another way to recognize and realize the value of these properties is to think about resilience. Schwartz points to a pilot program in Cleveland that’s trying to help with overall stormwater management by establishing rules around recovering vacant lots. If the lot was once a stream or waterway, it should be reclaimed as such, or rebuilt with permeable pavement and other features that help improve water management. These kinds of programs can help cities refresh their aquifers and supplies of clean groundwater.
“One of the things about depopulating cities in the Great Lakes region is that we have very interesting and complex hydrology,” says Schwartz. “All of these cities, when they were booming and growing, abused their waterways, and as they grew, cemented over these tributaries and creeks. We can use this vacant land to improve and protect the water quality of the Great Lakes.”
A symptom, not a disease
While the externalities caused by vacant property, and most efforts to fix them, are local by nature, they could definitely use more assistance from the federal level. The Federal Hardest Hit Fund, a foreclosure prevention and neighborhood stabilization effort established in 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession, was a great asset for cities in need of funds to knock down vacant homes, but it was a one-time infusion of cash. While the affordable housing crisis coming to a head in cities across the country has finally started to get national attention and policy proscriptions, blighted urban land hasn’t been similarly addressed.
There’s definitely hunger for it: Detroit Hives’s Paule says that after the story of their project went viral this spring, they received advice and guidance requests from around the globe, including from lots of other cities in the Midwest.
“That’s where we want to take it, to help address the issues of vacant lots and help provide jobs and help the environment,” he says. “This can be a triple-bottom-line solution, impacting people, planning, and profit.”
Mallach hopes that more can be done on a federal level. While individual members of Congress have proposed ideas and programs, Mallach says there hasn’t been any leadership on this important issue from the Trump administration, nor has there been any new investment in programming or efforts to help solve this crucial problem. Considering the key role the Rust Belt played in the 2016 election, and the slow pace of recovery in many parts of the region, Mallach hopes that vacant properties and blight will become a larger issue in the upcoming election.