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.