With housing affordability falling and rents rising, putting more low-income families at risk of losing their homes, some cities are working to cash in on unused real estate. But there is often a mismatch between the location and condition of vacant homes and where they are most needed: those in Appalachia may be run-down and have no form of rehabilitation. Vacant homes in luxurious locations from New Orleans to New England are the second homes of the nation’s elite.
And Americans who live in motels, in their cars, or on the streets are often not in the same states—or even the same time zones—as vacant homes that can be repaired and made for shelter.
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Meanwhile, the vacation homes of the wealthy are a sign of extreme income inequality alongside the homeless population in places like New Orleans.
“I walk through my neighborhood and I see a lot of wealthy out-of-state homes, bed-a-terrace. These residents come in and use it once a year,” Nathan Robinson, sociologist and founder of Current Affairs, said in an interview written for the magazine in October. for Mardi Gras.
“I have to say, that’s what’s going on under my skin. It really is, especially when I see this huge homeless population.”
In popular areas that are hard to reach for service workers, vacant units can be key to preventing them from falling into homelessness.
In Los Angeles, where new apartments can easily rent for more than $5,000 a month, vacant apartments can become a crucial lifeline for low-income families, said Susie Shannon, director of policy at Housing a Human Rights, a housing advocacy division of the Foundation. AIDS Healthcare. .
The organization has purchased and repaired 1,400 apartments over the past three and a half years in Los Angeles, at a cost of about $100,000 each. That’s a fraction of the $600,000 the city would spend building a homeless housing unit from scratch.
“We’re setting a good example of doing it faster and cheaper,” said Shannon. She cited utility statistics that show 70,000 vacant units in the city, which is enough to house all 42,000 homeless people counted in the city this year, or even 69,000 in the entirety of Los Angeles County.
Among the new clients is a couple with two young children, both of whom work near minimum wage. They are now placed in a hotel, awaiting their turn in a rehabilitated unit.
Seasonal tourism houses
Vacancy home statistics can be bewildering, and it’s hard to pinpoint where home repossession efforts might be fruitful.
The highest percentage of overall vacant homes is in Maine (20%), Vermont (20%) and Alaska (17%), where summer tourism creates demand for seasonal homes, according to a 2021 US Census Bureau survey. The survey defines homes as “vacant” if No one lived in them at the time, spread out over a year, as the census raises questions. Very little of this housing is salvageable to other people, according to a Stateline analysis.
Only about 2% of homes in Maine and Vermont are vacant because they are abandoned, need repair, are stuck in foreclosures, or have other potentially resolvable legal or family disputes. The rest are temporary homes or are already on their way for sale or rent, according to a detailed census breakdown released earlier this year for 2021.
The metro areas with the most vacancy are expensive waterfront resorts – Key West, Florida; Barnstable, Massachusetts on Cape Cod; and Ocean City, New Jersey – indicating that the vacant residences are being used for vacationers.
Reclaimable vacant homes are most common in the Deep South and Appalachia, where 6% to 7% of homes are vacant for potentially resolvable cases in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia, according to a Statline analysis.
In Louisiana, damage from two hurricanes from 2020 gave the Lake Charles region the highest rate in the country for vacant homes in poor condition, about 7% or 7,200 homes. Mayor Nick Hunter said in a statement to Stateline that he expects 90% to 95% of the city’s vacant housing to be ready for use by the end of this year.
But many salvage vacancies are in areas that don’t have much housing demand, said Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit advocating for more repurposing of vacant properties.
“In the Deep South, Appalachian and Plains states, thousands of homes are virtually abandoned and left to rot. These are all areas where supply exceeds demand and more people are leaving than moving,” Mallach said.
The same is true for lower-income areas of Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit, he said.
“The crux of the problem is that in areas with strong housing demand, vacancies tend to be low, while in areas with weak demand they remain high, many of which will likely need significant investment to return them to productive use,” Mallach said.
In high-demand areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, many vacancies are short-lived as homeowners prepare homes for the market, while less desirable areas like Detroit have more vacancies that last for years, according to an analysis of census data by Owens, YIMBY FROM CALIFORNIA.
New life for vacant homes
Cities like Baltimore, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, are struggling with vacant housing units. In Baltimore, one of the city’s proposals is to convert single-family homes into apartments to make rehab more financially feasible, but investors are getting more interested in the vacant homes there anyway. Syracuse charges a fee for vacant residential properties that rises each year to encourage landlords to re-use them.
Abandoned “zombie” homes with unclear ownership wreaked havoc in upstate New York in the 2000s. A 2016 state law requires mortgage lenders to check for vacancies when homeowners default on payments and to perform routine maintenance. The law also helped local governments hire more staff and obtain more data on homes to prevent future problems.
Some Southern cities such as Tupelo and Jackson, Mississippi, are demolishing vacant homes and residential and commercial buildings to provide more green space and discourage pests and flooding.
And some cities are experimenting with vacancy taxes to discourage unused apartments. Washington, D.C., pioneered additional taxes on vacant and damaged property in 2011, causing sticker shock for some homeowners who say their homes were vacant by mistake. San Francisco this month passed a vacancy tax.
“People are tired of tens of thousands of vacant homes while thousands sleep on the streets,” Dean Preston, a Democratic Socialist member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote in a tweet after the expected victory. It will tax properties that are vacant for more than 182 days a year and raise money to support rent and affordable housing.
About 4,000 housing units could be subject to the tax, which could bring in $15 million by 2026, according to the city’s estimate, creating a “small positive impact” if some landlords pay to rent apartments instead of paying the tax.
The city of Oakland, California, raised $7 million to help the homeless with a vacancy tax in its first year, 2019. The tax, which amounts to $6,000 for homes less than 50 days per year, was used and approved in 2018.
Not all reclaimed housing is geared towards low-income use. The Detroit area, which has the highest number of vacant homes in need of repair in the country, about 12,600 as of 2021, has seen some repaired and flipped homes for sale at market value.
Kyle Dubay has renovated an abandoned, fire-destroyed North End home and put it on the market for $475,000, in an area where the median price is about $189,000. Dubai scours vacant homes and other buildings for building materials and finds that the 1905 house was in good condition structurally, so he decides to buy it and renovate it himself using materials from the historic buildings.
“I think it makes more sense to rebuild a house than to demolish it,” Dubay said. “It’s very wasteful. But it’s very expensive now, the price of lumber is two to three times what it was a few years ago, the plumbing supply has gone up, everything has gone up.”
“The problem in Detroit is that many houses have been abandoned for so long that they require an insane amount of work.”
© 2022 Pew Charitable Trusts. Visit stateline.org.
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