Urban blight can be thought of as an epidemic of abandoned, vacant, or problem properties and is an issue throughout the United States. Communities experiencing losses of employment and population or other economic hardships may find themselves with an oversupply of such properties. The characteristics of blight—dilapidated and boarded-up structures, overgrown vegetation, and even fire damage—act like a contagion to neighborhoods. Over time, a lack of investment in a blighted neighborhood may reach a tipping point where the reversal of this trend, or the revitalization of the area, proves incredibly challenging.
Recently, researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Community and Economic Development (CED) department spoke with local stakeholders in New Orleans and Macon about the root causes and consequences of blight in their communities as well as various strategies that have been adopted to eliminate blight. The results were published in a discussion paper, "Blight Remediation in the Southeast: Local Approaches to Design and Implementation," by Ann Carpenter, Emily Mitchell, and former CED intern Shelley Price.
Both New Orleans and Macon have experienced a declining population in the urban core combined with suburbanization, a loss of jobs, a weak real estate market, and, in the case of New Orleans, the destructive power of hurricanes. These issues have resulted in a large number of blighted residential properties—around 40,000 in New Orleans and 3,000 in Macon, according to recent estimates.
These properties tend to cluster in already-devastated neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting low-income and racial- and ethnic-minority households. In order to promote a healthy economy and reduce the negative consequences associated with blight, such as reduced health and public safety outcomes and the loss of household wealth and tax revenue, New Orleans and Macon have developed extensive networks of organizations and individuals with a keen interest in fighting blight.
New Orleans and Macon were selected as case studies, with dozens of interviews conducted with representatives from each city. While other communities arose as potential case study subjects, the consensus from those familiar with the topic was that New Orleans and Macon have each experienced significant blight and are leaders in the Southeast in creating and refining robust strategies for combating it. Interview subjects were chosen from departments engaged in blight remediation such as city leadership (mayoral staff, city council, and county commissioners), code enforcement, housing authorities, development authorities, community and economic development, and planning and zoning; community-based organizations and other nonprofits such as community development corporations and neighborhood leaders; and academics and think tanks.
Anti-blight strategies fall into various categories: real property data information systems; vacant property condition surveys; vacant property registration ordinances; cleaning, greening, beautification, and safety improvements; code enforcement combined with administrative remedies, civil injunctions, and criminal prosecutions; nuisance abatement; demolition; land banking; delinquent property tax enforcement; spot blight eminent domain or expropriation; and vacant property receivership. For each of these strategies, a summary along with governing ordinances and legislation and legal, policy, and funding issues can be found on page 9 of the paper.
Both New Orleans and Macon have convened a diverse and wide-reaching array of partners for their respective anti-blight programs. In New Orleans, interviewees frequently cited the importance of partnerships and indicated a list of at least 54 different individuals and organizations such as city and state agencies, nonprofits, neighborhood organizations, foundations, and academia that were involved in blight remediation efforts, an overwhelming number of which were locally based in New Orleans. A unique feature in Macon has been the awareness raised by the local Macon Telegraph newspaper, which printed a blight exposé authored by the Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism ("The House Next Door"). Partnerships, along with strong leadership and active champions, have been critical to the success of both cities' blight remediation work.
Based on the information provided by stakeholders in New Orleans and Macon, recommendations for successfully reducing blight include:
- High-level strategies such as data collection and visualization to understand the extent of blight, development of a comprehensive strategy with input from all stakeholders based on the data, and utilization of transparent and realistic metrics to benchmark and calibrate action.
- Organizational recommendations such as foster partnerships and strong leadership, involve technical experts, recruit capable staff in key areas like inspections and investigations, and prioritize funding with local need, often by targeting the hardest-hit neighborhoods with focused investment.
- Policy and legal system recommendations that specifically acknowledge or revamp state and local regulations that present barriers, use code enforcement more effectively, avoid eminent domain due to the legal and financial burdens associated with this approach, and embrace land banking as a conduit for revitalization.
- Public participation recommendations that provide easy entry points for residents, design user-friendly communications, incorporate feedback from the public, and engage formalized neighborhood groups as a foray into the social fabric of communities.
Blight remediation in both cities has had various value-added benefits, such as increased property values, more collaboration, and greater civic pride. However, criticisms exist. In New Orleans, gentrification pressures are a concern near higher-rent areas. Low-income households may also be unduly burdened by stricter code enforcement, without the means to pay for fines and repairs. In Macon, many residents would still like to see local government do more to eliminate unsafe or unsightly conditions in their neighborhoods. While these negative impacts are significant and should be addressed (for example, through household-level direct assistance), they should not preclude anti-blight activities that will improve the overall quality of life.
The lessons learned from New Orleans and Macon are applicable to many communities in the Southeast and beyond, although it should be noted that the local context is important in devising an effective anti-blight strategy. For example, state enabling legislation and civic capacity can vary greatly. Nevertheless, these examples demonstrate the need for solutions that address policy, process, and organizational structures.
By Ann Carpenter, CED adviser, and Emily Mitchell, senior analyst