For Release Friday, April 29, 2011
NEW ORLEANS — Attention shrinking cities! New Orleans recently held an auction of blighted houses. More than 1,000 people showed up to bid on approximately 100 vacant houses and empty lots with an average of seven bidders per property. Officials were astounded. This stunning success has relevance beyond this beleaguered city and may offer a new clue about how to approach the shrinking city syndrome that is hollowing out other beleaguered cities with demolition-based strategies.
Before the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) auction, the city’s blight policy emphasized demolition on the assumption that people were not coming back, not enough new people were coming in, and that vacant property would sell better than damaged homes. Sound familiar? Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Buffalo and others use government funding to follow this path, assuming there is no other way.
Yet, in New Orleans, which experts erroneously thought would stay shrunk after Katrina, anecdotal evidence has long pointed in other directions. But since the city keeps no real records on renovation permits for blighted properties, and since, as well, there are more hurdles to property reclamation here than getting to the moon, this auction speaks volumes about a scenario different from official assumptions.
First-time home buyers, small local renovation contractors, current residents seeking an investment opportunity — there are all manner of buyers. Prices range from $5,000 to $175,000 for the mostly single family homes. Prior auctions required sealed bids, minimums that would not undermine neighborhood values and commitments to live in the house for five years. No such requirements were present this time.
This auction, however, was more broadly marketed and gave hope to many people either unable to take advantage of other processes, or denied bank financing for pricier properties. The only obligation here is to show substantial remodeling completed within a year of closing. The city’s permitting process will have to move uncharacteristically swiftly for this to occur.
Most significantly as a lesson to other cities, properties with deteriorated houses sold better than vacant lots. This contradicts the assumption common elsewhere that the best way to deal with blight is to clear existing structures — no matter how architecturally significant they might be — and bank the land for other uses or future development.
That policy assumes that the only future hope is with builders of whole developments — not individual buyers looking for an affordable way to either buy or build a property for their own use, or for small renovators who buy and fix up one property at a time. No evidence exists that any of the rustbelt shrinking cities have tried the approach just witnessed in New Orleans.
This turn of events may wind up having a game changing impact on the policy of both NORA and the city. NORA still owns countless storm-damaged properties. Significantly, NORA officials and aides to Mayor Mitch Landrieu discussed possibly stepping in to supplement the tight mortgage and construction financing market.
The New Orleans auction could mark a dramatic and positive shift in government policy at all levels and a potential alternative for other cities as well. Why wait years for big developers to buy big swaths of land for redevelopment with the usual generous assortment of subsidies and tax incentives? Why not let the market reemerge slowly with small help offered to individual buyers? This happens to be the way regeneration has occurred in the many once-deteriorated-but-now-revitalized neighborhoods across the country. Developers are never the first ones into challenged neighborhoods; they follow the small investors who take the risks and prove that the market exists.
In reality, American cities have been shrinking since World War II, long before the demise of such smokestack manufacturing as cars and steel, or other big industries. Urban renewal, highways, federal subsidies for suburban development, redlining of urban neighborhoods — all combined with Madison Avenue’s promotion of the American dream of home ownership to “shrink” cities.
Density was made the big bugaboo. The false notion was promulgated that de-densifying neighborhoods would diminish crime. Today, we understand the reverse is true. Urban renewal and highways destroyed more residential units and small and large businesses than were replaced by towers-in-the-park and industrial parks.
Yet the theory these days is that the salvation of distressed cities is to once again “shrink,” as if shrinking had not been tried before and succeeded somewhere but who knows where. And who knows that people can’t be lured back? It is happening in many places and not just in New Orleans, where experts are continually surprised by neighborhood resiliency at the grass roots level.
Endless examples of gradual regeneration — not theory — do exist elsewhere as well. Top examples included the dollar houses Baltimore initiated in the ’70s, a practice begun recently in such cities as Syracuse. They include the regeneration of the South Bronx by community efforts that successfully fought the then popular approach of “planned shrinkage.” There are parallels in current neighborhood efforts in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Houston, Portland. All these efforts represent innovative strategies to bring people back, to nurture new business formations, to build on observable successes instead of following simplistic theory. It only happens in small step-by-step doses by adding something positive instead of removing the negative.
The lessons of how and why are never learned.
The real challenge is to overcome the state and federal regulations and funding opportunities that make this revitalization direction so difficult. Demolition money is easier to come by. Big demolition contracts are easier to give. Mayors love the photo-op that gives the impression of cleaning up blight. Lenders don’t like the look of dilapidated old buildings, even if they are historic or just solid old construction. They do, however, understand demolition and formula building projects. And even though preservation, restoration, conservation and renovation have saved more neighborhoods than urban renewal ever did, the money to do more of it is the most complicated to get.
Obliterating whole areas of deteriorated housing is just another way of giving up on the past and the future. Nothing can be gained from this path; true innovation and creativity can be found in following the regeneration path instead.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books.
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