From the Good Ideas File: You Tear Down the Blight, But then what?

In this opinion piece from the Detroit Free Press, John Gallagher identifies the next challenge, and the unpleasant reality, of our current strategies for dealing with the massive numbers of vacant buildings we have in cities:

The simplistic, ipso-facto hope that often rears its head: if we just clear it, “the market” will take care of the rest.

As the author describes, the challenges go deeper than that.  I wrote at the Wise Economy not long ago about the risk of simplistic thinking about vacant property acquisition and demolition, but I think John makes the case more concretely that I did.  My point, and I think his: we are running a big risk of the damages of magic-bullet thinking and setting ourselves up for ugly unintended consequences unless we start thinking through this issue more systematically, with more of an eye to the potential impacts of our choices, and without defaulting to simplistic “if you demolish it they will come” pseudo-logic.

That doesn’t mean I know the answer.  It just means we need to not fall into the same traps that led us to other bad ideas.

I can always count on RustWire to find the insightful, critical-thinking stuff we need. Thanks, guys.

One thought on “From the Good Ideas File: You Tear Down the Blight, But then what?

  1. In healthy cities, people buy buildings that are no longer useful, tear them down and build something new. So it is incorrect to assume that the mere existence of an obsolete or blighted building is a great impediment to development. This was one of the incorrect assumptions behind “urban renewal” that came to be known as “urban removal” by residents who were displaced by the demolition of their homes.

    Instead of taking a “snap-shot” view, we should take a longer view. Usually, slums were not built as slums. They became slums over time as a result of many decisions to invest or disinvest. So perhaps the question to ask is “How can we intervene in the ongoing process of property investment decision-making so that properties are built, improved and maintained over time?”

    Part of the answer lies in correcting our upside-down property tax. Under the typical property tax, we increase taxes on owners who construct and improve buildings and we reduce taxes on owners who allow buildings to deteriorate. Owners of boarded-up buildings and vacant lots typically pay less tax than their more responsible neighbors. This is a recipe for disaster. And the answer is not to subsidize some new building only to have this incentive for disinvestment remain unabated.

    The upside-down property tax can be replaced by a number of public service user fees and access fees that will be comprehensible and equitable. People will pay in proportion to benefits that they receive or in proportion to costs that they impose on others. Details can be found in a report, “Funding Infrastructure for Growth, Equity and Sustainability,” at

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