New study could help Lansing fight vacancy rates

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The campus of Lansing Catholic High School is clean and well-kept. The sidewalks are clear, the windows are intact. Walk a few streets over, though, and you won’t find much like it.

The area surrounding the high school is riddled with vacant homes and buildings, something that parents and students definitely notice.

“You drive by school and you see houses with boarded up windows and tall grass,” says Steven Izzo, a sophomore at Lansing Catholic. “It’s not good to look at.”

According to Neighborhood Scout, the area surrounding Lansing Catholic has a real estate vacancy rate of 21.8 percent, higher than the vacancy rates of almost 88 percent of all neighborhoods in the United States.

This area is not the only place in Lansing to have a vacancy problem, either. Drive up and down streets in the city — it won’t take long to drive past a boarded-up house.

According to Neighborhood Scout, this area in Lansing has a current real estate vacancy rate of 21.8 percent, higher than 87.6 percent of all U.S. neighborhoods. Source: Neighborhood Scout. Graphic by: Colin Donnelly.

According to Neighborhood Scout, this area in Lansing has a current real estate vacancy rate of 21.8 percent, higher than 87.6 percent of all U.S. neighborhoods. Source: Neighborhood Scout. Graphic by: Colin Donnelly.

So what happens to these homes and buildings once they become vacant? Scott Sanford, lead housing inspector for the City of Lansing, says that there’s not much the city can do.

“The city has no registry for abandoned or vacant properties,” Sanford says. “We can drive through the neighborhoods and write and fine them for trash and grass, but that’s about it.”

Sanford says that since the city does not assume ownership responsibilities of vacant homes and buildings, the city is not responsible for what happens to the home.

“The homeowner is responsible. We don’t own the properties,” Sanford says. “We can come by and mow the lawn every once in a while, but that’s about the extent of it. We’re doing this to maintain a healthy and safe neighborhood, but ultimately it is the owner of the property’s responsibility.”

Vacancy is nothing new to Americans. Many American cities have struggled with vacancy rates over the past few decades. According to the U.S. Census, the annual rental vacancy rate for the Midwest region from 1968-2015 is higher than the national average, hitting its peak in 2005.

The Midwest region of the United States has had a higher rental vacancy rate than the U.S. average since the mid-1990s. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

The Midwest region of the United States has had a higher rental vacancy rate than the U.S. average since the mid-1990s. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Since vacant housing is such a problem not only in Lansing, but in the entire Great Lakes basin and the United States, many are looking to put a stop to it.

One Lansing neighborhood, Fabulous Acres, has been known to take abandoned lots and houses and turn them into beneficial community resources, such as turning an abandoned parking lot into a community park.

How can more communities follow in the footsteps of Fabulous Acres? Dr. Rex LaMore, the director of the Michigan State University’s Center for Community Economic Development, might have an answer.

LaMore now teaches a course in domicology, which studies the issue of property and structural abandonment for commercial and residential buildings.

The goal of domicology, LaMore says, is to build structures with the hope that at some point they will be “deconstructed” and their materials reused.

“We want to maximize the use of the materials as best we can,” he says. “It’s unhealthy to leave these structures decaying from an economic, social and environmental perspective.”

Many cities, including Lansing, have tried to combat vacant properties by tearing them down or keeping them clean and safe. LaMore says that this isn’t effective, however, because most of the costs bear down on taxpayers.

“Not only are taxpayers responsible for tearing down these houses, but those who live next to vacant properties often see an increased loss of property values,” LaMore says.

Vacant properties also present social issues to communities. LaMore says that the social indicators for these communities are increased amounts of single parenting, unemployment and crime rates.

In a city like Lansing, where 29.6 percent of citizens are living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the issue of vacancy becomes ever more prevalent.

“This is a health and safety hazard, so we really need to think about not allowing it to occur,” LaMore says. “Most people don’t think about it. Why would we allow these structures to be abandoned and become blight?”

LaMore hopes that domicology will get its footing and will take off throughout the United States.

“Will it go forward? We’ll see,” LaMore says. “But as far as the issues of structural abandonment, that’s not new. Our dream is to end this. Fifty years from now, it won’t be like this. When a property goes out of use, we’ll deconstruct it.”

Perhaps more Lansing neighborhoods, like Fabulous Acres, will turn to domicology to take care of these vacant properties. If the city is unable to do anything about it, then it is time for community members to step up.

“If you have a complaint, call me or report it online,” Sanford advises. “Then, if nothing is done about it, be a neighbor and help out. The city will do what it can in as timely a fashion as we can, but there are many properties to take care of.”

Complaints can be made online at http://www.lansingmi.gov/612/Code-Enforcement.

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