The administration of Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin unveiled this week what she called “aggressive” measures to battle vacant and abandoned properties in her city. Aggressive accurately describes the two.
On Monday, Goodwin introduced in the City Council a bill to toughen existing sanctions against owners of abandoned houses and vacant lots, a growing pariah in the capital. Buildings and their owners will be flagged after 90 days of vacancy, instead of the current benchmark of six months.
Then they will be flogged. Goodwin wants to increase the initial fee on an abandoned building or a vacant lot from $250 to $500. After a year, the city will slap another $1,000 fine and, thereafter, a $10 daily fine.
Other areas of the Kanawha Valley suffer the debilitating conditions of slum and blight. But Charleston includes especially acute and large examples of them. Hundreds of vacant lots and buildings are strewn throughout the West Side and North Charleston. Hundreds more houses teeter on the brink of abandonment and collapse as marginal landlords and aging or poor homeowners are one or two steps away from a declaration of surrender to economic or functional obsolescence.
Among the remaining sturdy others, no single homeowner, even the most responsible one, caught up in this torrent of market forces can possibly fight them. Eventually, many give up and cut their losses, causing neighboring values to decline further. Lenders observe the disinvestment and refuse to loan money to the next generation of owners.
The aggregation of decay creates a ratcheting effect and becomes, if not disrupted, a slow descent into the collapse of a neighborhood.
Hundreds of despairing cities throughout the Rustbelt have responded to the same problems that Charleston is experiencing with a multitude of programs and initiatives. Apart from money, these include criminalization and punishment, the natural response of government armed with the policing power. Using the policing power is what government knows how to do, and, with caution, should do.
That is why Goodwin announced on Monday that Charleston is turning to tougher sanctions.
But she needs to be mindful of the likely consequences of her plan, assuming she will be serious about vigorous enforcement. My guess is that the city’s new super-charged fees and fines for vacant buildings and lots will only expedite the decision of most owners to abandon them.
That will mean even more vacant buildings and lots, and then more work for enforcement workers whose plates already are full. Theirs is an untold story of urban combat: Dealing with squalor day after day exacts heavy tolls on inspectors, sanitation workers, police officers and firefighters. They are mentally and physically tapped.
It also will mean the city will need more money — and lots of it — to enforce the new law. In the past two years alone, Charleston has spent $2 million clearing away empty houses — not nearly enough.
That leads to Goodwin’s second proposal. She wants to create a city-run land bank to acquire run-down houses and empty lots and to deploy them for redevelopment. A land bank is an excellent tool for combating an expensive problem, but it, therefore, will be expensive to run.
But a land bank cannot succeed without corresponding mechanisms to dispose and redevelop the properties it acquires. Like a real bank, a land bank cannot take in deposits alone to be successful. A land bank must quickly deploy its land back into private hands to create new uses and to add economic and social value for the community.
To cause new investment in these afflicted neighborhoods, the city must make a probing review of the hidden obstacles to it, the things that it cannot now see. That means a top-down review of the tax and regulatory hurdles that discourage investment. Zoning and land-use reform should be at the top of the list.
The biggest piece missing from this puzzle is a well-capitalized and managed organization, public or private, focused on the hands-on redevelopment of the city’s struggling neighborhoods. Such an entity would be able to muster and master the capital and human resources essential for redevelopment.
This is hardly novel. Louisville, Dayton, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and dozens of other cities have sponsored community development corporations, and are reviving largely because of them.
It is well past the time for the city of Charleston, in cooperation with banks, businesses, foundations and others, to launch a public-private community development corporation to spur its growth. Without it, we can look forward to a long and hard slog without much to show for our efforts.