Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Blight, Rich Property Owners & Race

Blight usually has more to do with rich, well-connected property owners than it does with lower class folks - even as blight is traditionally associated with depressed neighborhoods and at-risk populations. It also has a lot to do with code enforcement, zoning laws, and property tax assessment methods. This can happen anywhere, cities like New Orleans have to look for solutions the same way they have to figure it out in Athens and Lexington, Georgia.

Let's put it this way, if a lot of people I know refused to keep up their properties or let them fall into disrepair (or even just repaired them in the wrong way), they'd get a visit from county code enforcement. Neighbors would complain. Fines could be assessed. Something would be done. I know this, because it has already happened to friends of mine who have attempted to make modest renovations to their homes without the proper permits. Try it sometime, if you own property in a relatively well-off, middle class area and want nothing more than a visit from the county authorities.

Meanwhile, in other parts of town, derelict buildings owned by absentee landlords remain out of commerce and nothing gets done. Boarded up windows and doors get town down by the elements or people who want access to an abandoned building. Rodents move in. Crime usually follows. Many of these properties are in depressed neighborhoods with at-risk populations. Neighbors may complain (if they know where to direct their call), but nothing ever seems to get done. Building conditions get blamed on the local population - but at-risk populations don't usually own those buildings!

As a matter of fact, keeping those buildings in derelict or blighted states of disrepair actively contribute to neighborhoods remaining depressed, at-risk populations remaining at-risk, and depreciation of surrounding property values. After all, why spend money to increase the property value and therefore increase your property tax liability when you can just let the building deteriorate and decrease both? Our system as currently maintained incentivizes blight.

Also, property values affect the property tax structure that is used to pay for the derelict schools in depressed neighborhoods with at-risk populations. That's a nice, tidy way to continue the cycle of poverty, especially in the South, and placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the at-risk populations themselves.

For example, New Orleans has a ridiculous blight problem. It also has a ridiculously high property tax, and a byzantine property tax structure. The folks who own maintained properties must subsidize the entire local system because there are a lot of folks who own derelict properties that drain the system.

There are two excuses for such draning behavior, one based on liberty and one based on racism. Both must be addressed calmly and logically if we are to build the political will necessary to rebuid our cities, especially in the South.

One: "you can't tell me what to do with my property." This is usually employed by the rich or well-connected property owner who owns blighted or derelict property. Spending money to keep the building up will increase property values and probably property taxes. There is no incentive to keep up the property, and there is no incentive to sell the property (if it may be worth something someday). So it just keeps mouldering where it is, dragging the neighborhood and community around it down with it.

I can empathize with a property owner's rights to their own property, but not at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods and communities, and not while being subsidized by my tax dollars. Yes, there is a fine line that exists here between individual rights and government intrusion, but let us not pretend it can't be walked, especially with dynamic and responsive local involvement. Right now, some wealthy property owners are hiding behind this slippery slope and the rest of us are paying for it.

Two: "Racism." A more complicated excuse, this is broken into two sections. The first is akin to enemies using human sheilds during times of war, the second is based on reasonable historical mistrust taken to extremes.

2A: A rich, well-connected property owner (of any race, and this includes government agencies) rents to low-income or Section 8 tenants and allows the properties to deteriorate. The Housing authorities do not enforce code on these properties because of a lack of resources or interest. The result allows low-income or Section 8 tenants to live in squalor, while the owner collects a government check. Populist critics blame the property's state of disrepair on the residents, even though the owner of the property and the local government AND the state or federal housing authority should be ensuring compliance and basic standards of living.

Because many urban, low-income or Section 8 tenants, especially in New Orleans and across the South, are inhabited by at-risk minorities, addressing these living conditions can be demagouged as racist policy by those who don't want the situation to change. Requiring property owners to maintain their property may cause those property owners to sell those properties or stop renting to low-income or Section 8 tenants, usually resulting in such tenants having to leave thier places of residnece. History being what it is, this can be construed as racist policy even if enforcing code and basic building standards will benefit the at-risk residents of low-income housing or Section 8, AND the neighborhoods and communities in which they live which may be neither at-risk, nor low-income, nor Section 8.

2B: Unclear title to property. References to racism in these instances reflect the historical race-based rules regarding property ownership, and the distrust reasonably formed during that time. For those of you who do not think the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow lives with us even today, here is one of the prime examples.

This is where the next generation of a family has inherited a property owned by a progenitor, but there is no clarity regarding who can make decisions for this property. With no clear title, local code enforcement agencies are unable (or unwilling) to contact the proper individuals to remedy deterioration to a property.

Again, race relations historically have weakened minority property ownership rights, and this kind of situation is ripe for racially motivated advantage-taking. History is filled with examples of a family losing land because "the county" contacted some distant cousin and they sold the property to some wealthy developer for a song. (Who then treats the property as described above...)

However, the local governments can do a lot in locating owners and assisting them through the process of property remediation, especially in this day and age. Fair and just codes can be written and enforced that will allow for due process and remediation, but local politics all across the South have been demagouged to a standstill on issues such as these. Either the county interests refuse to recognize the legacy of Jim Crow as it relates to such proceedings, and get shut down; or property interests refuse to recognize the need for such proceedings, and imply that reasonable codes are a return to Jim Crow.

That has to stop - just as it is racist policy to seize property without due process-based legal contact or compensation, it is racist policy to allow the situation to go unaddressed for so long it begins to affect the surrounding neighborhoods and communities in adverse ways, and this is exactly what has happened all over the South.

Finally, the first item is more easily remedied than the second, from simply a due process standpoint. When ownership of blight or derelict property is well established, and the owner simply ignores the problem (as appears to be the case in Athens and Lexington) the solution presents itself - go after the wealthy property owners who let their property deteriorate. Incentivize selling this property or keeping it in commerce. Remove the systematic incenctives to let the property's value depress. Enforce reasonble code with due process, and appraise property value realistically.

In the second instance, the system will take longer, be more difficult and more emotional (as we're starting to do this in New Orleans), but it must be done sooner rather than later. Cities must have a hand in reviving their more vital neighborhoods.



Mavric said...

This is a very thought provoking piece. Take a look at for some interesting statistics on blight, progress in the city & tools local governments have to fight it.

Dante said...

Cries of racism cut both ways. In south Dallas there was a mall called Red Bird Mall. It was in the Redbird community. It catered to middle class south Dallas shoppers. But then the neighborhood fell apart. Crime and gang activity became commonplace. Well, the mall's owners, the DeBartolo Group weren't going to put up with crime and gangs in their mall so they upped security and did what they could to drive them out. And they were derided as racists for it since most of the crime came from low income residents and those residents were largely black. (As an interesting aside, most of the security guards in the area were also lower income residents and as such were also largely black.) So DeBartolo sold to NAMCO (not the video game company).

At first NAMCO has lofty goals for the mall, but when they ran into the same problems DeBartolo ran into, they just gave up. They were losing tenants because they were losing shoppers. They were losing shoppers because nobody felt safe at the mall anymore. Slapping on a new coat of paint wasn't going to fix that. NAMCO even changed the name to Southwest Center Mall to try to get rid of the image Red Bird Mall had earned for itself, but it didn't work.

From there the mall went into foreclosure more than once. Each new owner bought it cheap at auction and while a new owner may try to cheaply gussy up the place, they saw it as a thing to be strip mined of tenant money instead of nurtured.

And it got bad. I know a girl who worked at the Waldenbooks there. She quit when a group of teenagers urinated on books in the back of the store (mostly kids books) and were run off by security guards only for the same group to return the next day and do the same thing. The store closed up shop shortly after.

So now it's mostly dead. And what's the solution? Enforce code? In that case, whoever owns it now will just let it fall into foreclosure again rather than put any more money into the property. The community keeps reaching out for ideas but none are viable without Dallas spending a good chunk of public money.

The sad part is nobody thought Red Bird could be renovated for retail purposes. 5 minutes away in Oak Cliff, Uptown Village is proving them wrong. But to be fair, in Oak Cliff nobody is screaming racism when a black security guard runs off a black gang.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Dante, that's exactly one of my points. Our nation has been taught to fear charges of "racism," even when the policy is designed to protect minority rights.

Part of that is the too-easy use of the term "racism," which has been demagouged into near meaningless. But make no mistake, another part of that is white people assuming and overblowing a reaction to some difficult task - "we can't do that because they'd call us racists" - and making excuses for not doing the right thing.

But that's only part of it. You say "But then the neighborhood fell apart."

That's what I'm talking about with blight. How did that neighborhood fall apart? I guarantee absentee landlords, depreciation of property values, and the existence of blight contributed mightily to the degeneration, and this mall was a casualty to those forces.

Dante said...

"But make no mistake, another part of that is white people assuming and overblowing a reaction to some difficult task - "we can't do that because they'd call us racists" - and making excuses for not doing the right thing."

I'll see if I can dig up some Dallas newspaper articles from the 80's on Google, but in this case, there was no overblown reaction on the part of the mall ownership. I remember the sudden surge in security guard presence at the mall and I remember the Dallas City Council all but telling DeBartolo to stand down. Like most middle class shoppers, we stopped going there shortly afterwards. Six Flags Mall and Forum 303 were only about another 10 minutes away. Valley View and the Galleria weren't that far out either.

"How did that neighborhood fall apart?"

Crime leads to businesses leaving. Businesses leaving turns nurturing landlords into absentee landlords since the difference between them nurturing the property and not now amounts to a minimal difference in their return on investment. You could try to force the slumlords' hands, but if you do that you had better be prepared to take the property off their hands because they'd rather roll over and die in foreclosure.

Where'd the crime come from? Poor people. A lot of folks like to attribute that to race as well, but communities of affluent minorities have low crime rates just like their predominately-white neighborhood counterparts. The economic stature of your community has everything to do with the crime that takes place there.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

I remember the Dallas City Council all but telling DeBartolo to stand down.

At some point, you have to stand up for yourself against political grandstanding. That being said, did the Dallas City Council have any reason to believe the management was actively engaged in actual racist practices? Don't get me wrong, I'd like to give the business owner the benefit of the doubt, but Texas in the 80's doesn't strike me as the utopia of racial harmony when it comes to changing demographics.

Where'd the crime come from? Poor people.

While there are economic reasons for increased crime, and a lot of that does have to do with poverty, this still doesn't answer the question.

More at-risk populations, especially economically depressed demographics, tend to concentrate in geographies of marginal utility (thus lower-cost). Sometimes crime follows populations, sometimes population follows crime. Like any predators, criminals have an easier time preying on the weak, and at-risk populations make for better targets.

Specifically, did this area experience some sort of white flight, or other racially-based demographic shift that led to the land becoming more "marginal," thus increasing the at-risk and economically depressed population, thus increasing the crime?

Because there are plenty of examples all over the South where businesses and populations left an area "because of the crime" when they really left an area because of changing demographics. That belief of higher crime becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as high crime areas, or those percieved to be, deteriorate further.

Bringing it back to the main point, blight and derelict properties are concentrated in those areas, because no one wants to take the risk of reinvesting. Not reinvesting, even a limited amount, continues the downward cycle of neglect that destroys these neighborhoods and communities.

Dante said...

Red Bird was a hotbed for car theft in particular due to its proximity to I-20 and US-67. Anyone out in the parking lot for too long was going to get hassled by security. It just so happens that most of the people hanging out in the parking lot were minorities. When the black teenagers hanging out in the parking lot were getting hassled while the white teenagers hanging out inside the mall were not, accusations of racism were rampant.

When security backed off, it became a free-for-all. And I imagine at this point you may be thinking, "Well, what about the really real Police?" to which I respond, "Yuh." Across the I-20 you're in Duncanville and they didn't take no crap from no suckers in Duncanville. Unfortunately on the Red Bird side you're in Dallas PD's domain. And as far as they were concerned (at least at the time), if you weren't downtown, you didn't exist.

I get that a lot of people use the word "crime" when they mean "minority" but at least in that part of Dallas the crime was (and still is) very real. I attribute it to my theory that Metroplex residents love nothing more in life than living up to stereotypes. It's like the opposite of South Gwinnett. I'm also halfway convinced that Dallas is where racial stereotypes come from but I may be confusing cause and effect.

Despite that, even in Metroplex, there are plenty of high-minority areas where shopping centers thrive. The aforementioned Uptown Village and the continued success of the Parks Mall in Arlington are testaments to that. Red Bird just isn't one of those places.

Reinvestment is key but in the case of malls, it has NEVER succeeded. Ever. Anywhere. Dead malls stay dead or get re-purposed. Commercial renewal has a short-term gain that is far too short to make back your investment. In New Orleans case, I imagine you're not dealing with strictly commercial districts so there is hope. Urban and suburban renewal has had limited success in both residential and industrial neighborhoods. But in the case of commercial development, re-purpose it, find a public use, or even pull a General Sherman and burn it to the damn ground. Just don't try to resurrect it because it's not happening.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

I can absolutely believe that, in the case of malls, reinvestment almost always fails. This is usually because malls are built to follow changing patterns of suburban and exurban expansion.

For as much as we have invested in suburbs nationwide, they continue to represent a volatile geographic pattern.