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Abandoned Dreams
How Milwaukee is dealing with some 5,000 vacant and abandoned houses.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

From 2000 to 2010, the number of vacant houses in the United States increased by 4.5 million. That’s an astounding figure. Today, in the city of Milwaukee, an estimated 5,000 houses sit vacant and abandoned, the vast majority in impoverished neighborhoods.

Other cities fare far worse: Cleveland, 15,000 vacant houses. Philadelphia, 40,000. And Detroit, as many as 70,000.

As our January cover story points out, the problem is an outgrowth of the housing crisis. The 2008 recession pushed jobless rates higher and higher, causing record numbers of foreclosures. As homeowners were forced to vacate, houses remained empty, particularly older homes in rust belt cities, where populations have declined, reducing the demand. Add to that the fact that the housing stock has aged in these cities, making renovation prohibitively expensive.

The effect on neighborhoods is stark. The longer a house sits vacant, the faster it deteriorates, dragging down property values and inviting crime. Empty houses become safety risks and fire hazards.

“Abandoned properties also have a tremendous effect on the morale of people who live in the neighborhood,” and on the likelihood of people choosing to live there,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C. 

To stop the cycle of deterioration, he says, cities have begun to demolish the troubled properties. Buffalo, for example, plans to tear down 5,000 vacant houses over the next five years.

It seems drastic and counterintuitive, tearing down houses to save a neighborhood. But the public policy pendulum has begun to swing from rehabbing decrepit houses to razing them instead. “If you go back even a couple of years, demolition was taboo,” Mallach says. Now, as cities wrestle with budget constraints, strategies have shifted.

Milwaukee is trying to balance demolition with renovation. Budgeting $12 million for 2014, it will renovate abandoned homes when salvageable. But it also plans to demolish 300 properties this year, maybe more.

Boarded up homes are commonplace on the urban landscape. In “No Occupancy,” our article, photographer Adam Ryan Morris and Associate Editor Matt Hrodey documented the crisis in Milwaukee, visiting houses that have been abandoned on the city’s North Side, where skyrocketing unemployment rates have taken a toll on homeownership. They spoke with neighbors, elected officials, religious leaders and city housing inspectors as they made the rounds of distressed properties. Focusing on a compelling community issue, their report underscores the combined power of photographs and narrative.

Additional photos by Morris – Ruins of the City, Parts 1, 2 and 3 are available online.

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mbradleyc Posted: 2/2/2014 4:35:56 PM
 0   2    

This is a "good news" story, yet it is presented as though the facts are bad news. Milwaukee has only 5,000 empty houses compared to tens of thousands in other old cities. That is impressive to me. Yes, a lot of people bought houses in the 2000's who could not afford them. A lot of banks gave loans to people who could not afford them. That's a problem for them. But it's not a tragedy. It's just bad judgment. Tear the houses down and plant grass. Eventually someone will be able to buy the lot and build a house. Hopefully the person buying and the bank financing will have learned from this. Meanwhile, the rest of us have our own lives to live.
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