Pittsburgh, Detroit, and the Vacant Property Connection

This past January Pittsburgh was visited by officials from the Flint, Michigan based Center for Land Reform (it was one of 15 cities chosen) about how to deal with blight and abandoned properties; a month later the Mayor created a Land Recycling Task Force that would have two years to write a plan for abandoned properties.

This is interesting in that the Wall Street Journal reported that Flint’s much larger neighbor Detroit-it is not known if it was one of the 15 cities selected by the Center-is already taking action. It is planning to demolish some 3,000 buildings by September of this year as a way to adjust to its shrinking population. The Michigan city has over 90k vacant houses and lots according to one non-profit that tracks data for Detroit.

With 912k people, Detroit has 98 vacant units per 1,000 people. Pittsburgh is very close with 93 (29k vacant units and 310k people); Philly has 68, Cleveland 115, and St. Louis 107. As a percentage of total housing units, Pittsburgh has close to 1 out of every 5 classified as vacant.

Due to the possible problems that arise from vacant housing Detroit plans to demolish some 3,000 units by the end of September. Pittsburgh knocked down 566 in 2008 (about a fifth of what Detroit plans to do) by both City and private parties and the Act 47 team recommended that the City look to the best practices "for managing vacant structures and absentee landlords".

Challenges for Land Task Force

The Mayor has asked for permission to create a 25 member task force that will deal with the City’s vacant properties. The panel, if created, will have two years to write a plan.

How extensive is the problem? The Act 47 plan contains data on vacant housing units as a percentage of total housing units. Pittsburgh has some 29k housing units that are vacant: with 160k total housing units, that works out to 18%.

That percentage is higher than other PA cities looked at by the recovery team-Philadelphia (14.9%), Allentown (9.5%), and Erie (14.7%)-but not as high as Buffalo (21.2%), Cleveland (23.3%), or St. Louis (21.3%). Pittsburgh exceeded the overall U.S. average of 11.6%.

To be sure, data shows that the rate of condemnations far outpaces the rates of demolitions, thus making the backlog grow annually. And though we have been told that the Pittsburgh region by and large did not partake in the housing boom (thus implying there has been no housing bust here) there has to be a good portion of stock that fell into foreclosure. To be sure, there are examples out there of what other cities have done to combat vacant housing and most certainly the task force will have to address the operations of the Bureau of Building Inspection, which was examined by both the Act 47 team (in the amended report) and a separate oversight board study.