In a nutshell:
- Blight is used to describe the economic and social disease brought to communities by properties that are in disrepair and/or neglected and abandoned. How we define blight is impacted by our motivations for managing blight, which can range from public health reasons to economic development reasons.
- Blight can exist in urban, suburban, and rural communities. It is a local problem and the tools and funding needed for blight remediation will be unique to each community.
- While we are still learning how to manage and remediate blight throughout the state, we know that the state needs to provide local policymakers with multiple policy and financial tools to address it. We also need to keep our motivation for managing blight on economic stability for the entire community.
Blight originated as a botanical term to describe plants that were in a state of disease or injury. It has been adopted by social scientists to describe the economic and social disease brought to communities by properties that are in disrepair and/or neglected and abandoned. Despite this general understanding, identifying blighted property remains more art than science. One city planner in Philadelphia in 1918 described blight as a property “which is not as it should be.”
Over the years, a blighted property has been defined as a physical space or structure that is no longer in acceptable or beneficial condition to its community. It is a stage of depreciation, not an objective condition, which means that it is created over time through neglect or damaging actions and that each community has a role in defining blight within its borders. An example of this is one local community in Michigan, which issued a cease and desist order to a resident for too many Halloween decorations under its blight ordinance. The resident was told that the displays themselves did not violate the township’s blight ordinance, but the traffic issues created by them did.
While blight can exist in urban, suburban, and rural communities, responses to it are contextual. Most scholarship focuses on urban settings, but issues such as illegal dumping and abandoned buildings happen in all kinds of communities. In fact, research by the Brookings Institution shows that poverty is increasing in the suburbs and physical manifestations of blight, such as littering, correspond with increasing suburban poverty.
So, where do we go from here? How do we define something so subjective that can mean contrasting things to different people in disparate communities? Without an objective definition, how do we create public policies to manage blight effectively?
Changing blight policies over the years
The first step is to pay attention to our motivations for preventing and remediating blight. Early in the 20th century, blight was viewed as a public health threat that could grow and spread across cities. It was an urban phenomenon and the solution was aggressive – slum clearances to eradicate blight and adoptions of citywide zoning codes to prevent its return. Though some reformers and government officials at this time acknowledged that elimination of housing without increasing the supply of low-income housing would only worsen the shortage, demolition was pursued without concurrent work to increase the housing supply.
After the Great Depression, concerns about morals and public health were replaced with concerns about economic growth. Blight was seen as a drag to city growth and economic development. Urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s used blight as legal justification for large-scale infrastructure and redevelopment projects that used federal grants to bulldoze many poor neighborhoods. The extent of structural decline contributing to depressed property values for minority communities was at times exaggerated and this led to mass displacements. With economic growth of the city as an ultimate goal, even houses that were in good condition could be taken through eminent domain if they were in areas that had been slated for economic development projects.
Eventually, a very broad working definition of blight, combined with the use of eminent domain to acquire private property for economic development projects, led to community backlash against government takings of private property. This use of eminent domain culminated in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v City of New London. While the court upheld the city’s use of eminent domain, the case led states to amend their laws to restrict or prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development.
The Great Recession, as well as decades of depopulation and deindustrialization in some cities, led to a new focus on reclaiming vacant and abandoned properties. During this time, land banks became more common as a policy strategy and legal tool for governments to use to address vacant and tax-foreclosed properties. Land banks can take possession of properties that the private market is not interested in, clear the title or extinguish back taxes on these properties, and then renovate, demolish, or sell the property. The focus of blight remediation and prevention has shifted from city-wide economic development to stabilizing distressed neighborhoods.
Different types of blight – urban, suburban, and rural
The second step toward effective blight policy requires acknowledgment that defining and managing blight is location-specific. Blight occurs across the state, but it is a local problem and the need for blight remediation and funding is localized and unique to each community.
All types of communities struggle with blight prevention and remediation, but policy and research tends to treat blight as an urban issue. Blight in all three types of communities can include vacant, abandoned, and dilapidated buildings (both commercial and residential). The main difference is the tools appropriate to address blight in each type of community.
Urban communities have multiple tools at their disposal, including building codes, zoning ordinances, active community organizations, housing counselors and assistance, the prospect of private investment, the capacity to pursue eminent domain, land banks, and media attention. Suburban communities may or may not have access to these same blight remediation tools. It is important to note that voters amended the Michigan Constitution in 2006 to make clear that eminent domain is not allowable for economic development-related private property takings or the enhancement of tax revenues.
Blight in rural communities is less visible. These areas of the state are less populated so fewer people notice blighted properties, there tends to be less media coverage, and the population generally holds stronger views about private property rights. As such, the government’s ability to address blight in both occupied and unoccupied housing is a much more difficult endeavor.
Because most state laws and policies have been written with urban communities in mind, the urban-focused laws do not always provide suburban and rural communities with the tools they need to define and address blight. Rural blight especially is shaped by circumstances unique to it, including population scarcity, limited physical and economic access to resources, differing cultural norms, and limited legal frameworks. A roadmap for successful blight remediation in rural communities needs to focus on preventative and remedial measures that are more modest and incremental than the solutions tend to be in urban contexts (e.g., empowering code enforcement officers to issue “on-the-spot” citations for structural defects) and the use of non-legal tools, such as negotiations with landowners and partnerships with nonprofit organizations.
Blight management for economic stability
Today we know that blight is not just an urban problem and it occurs in all kinds of communities. We also know that the state needs to provide local policymakers with multiple policy and financial tools to address it. We need to ensure that our goals in remediating blight are working for the benefit of the entire community – improving property values and tax revenues is an important goal when addressing blighted properties, but these efforts should not come at the expense of the needs and neighborhoods most impacted. We do not need economic development policies that bulldoze low-income, blighted neighborhoods; we need tools that allow neighborhoods impacted by blight to remediate the current blight and work to prevent future blight. Policy should focus on economic stability for the entire community.
Previously, we detailed Michigan’s various state laws addressing local government management of blight. It is always a delicate balance between providing a broad enough definition of blight to allow for prevention and remediation in communities while maintaining private property rights and neighborhood integrity. It is also difficult to ensure that state law addresses the different (and potentially competing) needs of urban, suburban, and rural communities.
The Research Council continues this research into blight remediation in Michigan and will work to illuminate the legal framework underlying blight management in Michigan and how the state can support communities as they manage, remediate, and prevent blight moving forward. Stay tuned for more information on blight in Michigan.
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