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Experts, Municipalities Brace to Save ‘Legacy Cities’

Much in the spirit of “we all are in this together,” city officials from America’s endangered cities are tapping into the wisdom of cross-discipline experts to examine housing and overall economic challenges to find long-term solutions.

Columbia University’s 110th American Assembly report entitled “Reinventing America’s Legacy Cities: Strategies for Cities Losing Population” offers such feedback about the local housing markets through a roadmap for “communities, elected officials, planners and other stakeholders working toward the best practical solutions for declining cities and their residents.”

In April 80 experts gathered in Detroit to discuss housing and wider economic issues affecting de-industrialized, iconic cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, to craft future economic, social and environmental development strategies for these cities they named “Legacy Cities.”

Not incidentally the assembly was co-chaired by Henry G. Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Gregory S. Lashutka former mayor of Columbus. Data show a large number of municipalities face budgetary shortages and debt pressure.

Participants agreed fears shaping the nation’s thinking about the future of these legacy cities need to be replaced with strategies capable to transform the existing mix of resources into “net assets to the nation” by using disciplined strategies that aim for long-term economic recovery.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Community Progress and the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the meeting produced a 50-page report that includes four key recommendations.

Participants concluded that the first step is implementing a creative vision based on “understanding of the city’s economic niche in its region and in the global economy” so it must be market driven.

Mayors, city councils and civic leaders need to prepare their cities for investment through legislation and practices that support public safety, along with investments in schools and neighborhoods “where there is enough market strength to encourage more growth.”

Further, local government officials need to ensure that surplus land is owned and controlled by special-interest land banks or land trusts capable to overcome “the negative effects of rampant land speculation” have proven competent in handling land acquisition, management and disposition.

Finally, the best way to reverse the current situation is by promoting partnerships among federal, state and local governments that help replace regulatory constraints with novel approaches and maximize the effect of available resources through regional collaboration.

Participants also called for out-of-the-box thinking in implementing suggested solutions. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the problems facing Legacy Cities,” the report concludes, so strategy must be tailored to specific contexts and needs as suggested by community leaders who understand their cities. 

Situations vary even comparing housing and overall economic performance in neighboring cities. For example, local media reported Champaign, Danville and Urbana, the three largest cities in East Central Illinois, have hundreds more empty single-family houses and rental units in multifamily buildings resulting from demographic changes caused by lack of local economic development that was later followed by a widespread national foreclosure crisis.

According to the 2010 Census, Champaign had nearly 400 vacant single-family homes for sale, which equals less than 3% of all the single-family homes in the city. Census statistics show Danville has hundreds of abandoned buildings in addition to hundreds of empty rental properties, some of which need major renovation. City officials responded to the crisis with demolition programs that require owners to register vacant rental properties so it can monitor their renovation. Otherwise the city has the burden to help maintain these properties in compliance with the city code.

In some areas in East Central Illinois and other severely distressed “Legacy Cities” housing stock is larger than demand, old in design and in deplorable physical status, thus unattractive to new homebuyers. 

Some market insiders favor demolishing abandoned homes, which may be vacant because the owner has died and family members do not want the house, it is a foreclosure, or it was an investment purchase the buyer chose to walk away from instead of renovating it for rent or for resale, open the possibility to build bigger lots and reduce the overall housing inventory in areas with a declining population.

Local economic development requires strategic planning as suggested by the 110th American Assembly whose recommendations were based on lessons learned and findings from local entities as much as from academia.

Starting in 2010 city officials in Champaign opted to count on municipality bond financing to revitalize the city and its housing market to deal with the changes in the ratio of owner-occupied versus rental housing following a national trend where the rental market is picking up.

It only means that the disposition of vacant or old, lower-value single-family unit properties becomes a bigger challenge.

Field servicers managing these homes have very few options. They can attract people looking for short-term living arrangements, those who want to save for a home, or potential buyers who prefer to explore different home styles and communities before purchasing.