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Cities and citizens try to reclaim vacant blocks

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — David Brown Kinloch could have lived elsewhere, but he chose to move into an abandoned home in a distressed Louisville neighborhood that others were leaving in droves.

In the 25 years since, Brown Kinloch has seen the Phoenix Hill neighborhood transformed from unsightly rows of vacant homes where crime flourished into a model of urban renewal. Under the stewardship of an active neighborhood association, new homes sprung up on weed-infested lots and boarded up houses were renovated. A small park and a communal vegetable garden offer green space.

"We were told that you couldn't build new housing inside the old city of Louisville," said Brown Kinloch, a renewable energy developer. "We proved that not only could you do it, if you made them affordable ... they'd sell right away. And they did."

Grassroots strategies to reclaim distressed neighborhoods are taking hold in cities across the country, including Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Fighting to reclaim neighborhoods blighted by blocks of decaying and neglected vacant homes, community groups and governments are working together to buy up lots, tear down buildings, create parks and court business to make neighborhoods safer and more welcoming.

But it's an uphill battle.

More than 1.2 million residential properties went into foreclosure in 2008, according to an estimate by Alan Mallach, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. The surge has spun off a vast inventory of bank-owned properties. The combination has caused housing prices to nosedive and can be a contributor to more crime and lower tax revenues.

The National Vacant Properties Campaign, funded by private and government grants, has been part of the fight. The group offers guidance to help cities, counties and states reclaim vacant properties.

It estimates the number of chronically vacant properties is in the millions. And the short-term outlook for a drop in vacant lands is bleak with millions more homes expected to go into foreclosure in coming years. Even in Louisville, several thousand abandoned structures or vacant lots dot some neighborhoods.

"There are just too many forces working in the system for anybody to expect a turnaround in the rate of foreclosures ... anytime soon," Mallach said at a recent conference in Louisville.

Still, there are many local success stories.

In Pittsburgh, the demolition budget has more than doubled for the purpose of razing condemned blights. It's a big task in a city with about 6,000 vacant buildings along with some 24,000 vacant lots. About 1,400 structures have been condemned, with more added daily.

One initiative gaining a foothold is called Green Up Pittsburgh that converts vacant properties into green space. The city offers horticultural consultants for soil testing and provides funding for initial plantings. A team of city public works employees helps maintain the property along with a corps of volunteers.

So far, more than 100 abandoned weed-filled lots have been turned into urban farms, community gardens and the like, with hundreds more projects planned. More than a patchwork approach, the initiative is seen as a larger strategy to improve neighborhoods being dragged down by a rash of abandoned lots with no prospects for development.

"It's one thing to change one corner, but if you can actually create a green corridor and a green pathway throughout the entire neighborhood, the impact is much greater," said Kim Graziani, the city's director of neighborhood initiatives.

In Cleveland, another Rust Belt city reeling from the number of foreclosures, local officials are striving to revitalize vacant land in an initiative called Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland. The Ohio city had more than 18,000 vacant parcels at the start of 2009. For some empty parcels, the goal is to return it to residential or commercial use.

The improvements are more than an economic issue, said Freddy Collier, chief planner with the Cleveland Planning Commission. "It's a public health and social question as well."

Some communities also are turning to land banks to help manage the flood of idled property. Land banks are public authorities created to manage and develop tax-foreclosed property. And land banks can enable communities to pursue more strategic approaches to development.

"If you can pull together larger blocks of land, then you have a real asset to offer to developers," said Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, an organizing group for inner-ring suburbs of Detroit.

In Philadelphia, two surveys done 10 years apart showed signs of marked progress in dealing with vacant houses in the Southwest Center City neighborhood. The follow-up survey in 2008 indicated that 90 percent of the once-vacant houses counted in the 1998 survey had been improved in some manner. Some structures were fully renovated with new residents while others were razed to create development-ready open space.

"This has become a hot neighborhood," said John Kromer, a senior consultant with the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kromer, a former Philadelphia housing director, credited a 10-year property tax abatement program and the formation of a downtown management organization as factors behind the rowhouse neighborhood's rebound.

The abatement offered tax relief on the increased market value of an improvement. For example, if a new house was built on a vacant lot, the property taxes owed for 10 years were based solely on the land.

The management group imposed an assessment on each property in the area, and the money aided in efforts to clean up the neighborhood and improve public safety, Kromer said.

In Louisville, the local neighborhood association played a key role in the turnaround of the Phoenix Hill neighborhood. The group has matched up developers with available properties, and in the past was even more involved by buying up vacant or abandoned property and arranging for the development and sales.

"We have what we call a missing tooth policy," said Brown Kinloch, a member of the neighborhood association's board. "We go around and see which are the missing teeth on a block — the ones that bring down the value of the whole block — and try to work with those houses and find a creative solution."

Brown Kinloch, 53, bought his house for $7,120 a quarter century ago. He renovated the abandoned camelback-style home — featuring one story in the front and two in the back — and it's now valued at about $110,000.

That's not to say problems have vanished in the neighborhood. Poverty persists, and the neighborhood group would like to see more home ownership, though it doesn't discourage renters.

Crime is down, however, and perceptions of the neighborhood have changed for the better, he said.

Other signs of renewal have taken root — houses on the market usually sell quickly, he said, and the neighborhood has become a popular path for joggers.
   
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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