Talis Shelbourne Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Nearly a decade ago, Danell Cross was enjoying a cup of coffee on her front porch on a summer morning when she saw smoke billowing from a home that was supposed to be empty.
Although the home had been vacant for less than a year, Cross later learned that squatters had accidentally set a fire.
“I didn’t know people were squatting in the house, but one morning … the house started to blaze and catch on fire,” she recalled. “A man had picked up some people to be day laborers, and they had been burning candles.”
Cross had lived at her address on 34th Street for seven years when the home across from her caught fire. The fire was a vivid and frightening example, she said, of why vacant homes are such a nuisance in neighborhoods and why they can pose a significant safety threat.
There have been more than 7,400 vacant properties logged into the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Service’s system since its vacant buildings program began in 2010; more than 2,500 remain vacant.
And in the wake of the 2020 pandemic-related recession, foreclosures are expected to increase among low-income homeowners after a moratorium ends July 31. Although experts anticipate that increase to be modest, they say more foreclosures may boost the number of vacant homes in distressed neighborhoods.
Old housing stock, property seizure laws and skyrocketing repair costs have conspired to create one of Milwaukee’s biggest ironies: In a city that lacks affordable housing, there are also too many vacant homes.
Vacant properties have become ‘illegal dumping havens’
It’s a problem that has nagged the city for years.
There was a spike of vacated properties after the 2008 recession and housing market crash, when millions of Americans defaulted on high-interest mortgages. The spike of vacated properties in 2018 is generally attributed to local and out-of-state home flippers who bought properties in 2016 and 2017 and gave up on renovations when housing prices dropped in 2018.
Now neighborhoods are worried about how even more vacant properties — including businesses — could affect their neighborhoods.
And they are not alone.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated that 11 million to 13 million people were at risk of losing their homes, which was double the number (5 million) of those who lost their homes after the 2008 recession. Communities of color are expected to get hit harder by foreclosures.
Cross is the director of Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, a nonprofit local agency focused on supporting investment in the community. In Metcalfe Park, she said, a steadily increasing number of vacant homes and lots have become a significant drag on the neighborhood.
“Not one block has not been affected in our community by either an abandoned house or a vacant lot,” she said. “Everything that happens to that vacant house affects you (and) the community.”
The problem is centered in neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by Black and Latino residents.
Alan Mallach is a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress (formerly the National Vacant Properties Campaign) and the former director of the department of housing and economic development in Trenton, N.J.
Over the years, research has piled up showing that vacant homes represent a significant blight on communities, he said.
“They are a terrible problem. There is a huge amount of research that shows if you have vacant properties on your block, your own house — no matter how nice it is — will be worth less,” he said. “It becomes a magnet for crime, people break in. It’s more likely to be set on fire. You just go down the list; having vacant properties undermines the economic and social underpinnings of a neighborhood.”
Research suggests the same is true of vacant lots, which result when a property must be demolished.
“A vacant lot, if it’s not maintained and allowed to become a place where people dump stuff, can be almost as bad a problem as a vacant building,” Mallach said.
Brandon Methu, a developer and the founder of Northernstar Companies LLC, owns 68 housing units in Milwaukee, including on the city’s near north side. As a graduate of the Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) Program, which recruits people of color for careers in real estate, Methu had high hopes that he could use his skills to support neighborhoods like the one he grew up in and offer affordable, well-maintained rental housing to low-income residents.
But he said his efforts have been undermined by vacant homes near his properties.
“Illegal dumping, as an owner, is the greatest impediment to making quality of life good for residents,” he said. “I routinely cut my grass, lock up my trash and utilize pest control. No matter what I do to my building, (illegal dumping) is not conducive to quality of life.”
“Vacant lots, vacant buildings, those are illegal dumping havens,” he said.
Methu said he routinely files complaints about tall grass and junk removal but the city is slow to respond, and the behavior doesn’t stop.
“There’s very little teeth,” Methu said of city ordinances meant to hold the owners of vacant properties accountable.
Time and money keep homes from being repaired
Vacant properties often sit abandoned for years for two primary reasons: Laws intended to help homeowners keep their properties tend to make it difficult for the city to intervene before the properties deteriorate, and once properties sit for too long, they can become too expensive to fix.
In Milwaukee, homeowners are required to register their property as vacant if it is empty for more than 30 days; those homes are inspected either quarterly or if a complaint is lodged. Buildings violating certain codes are assessed escalating fees.
But it is typically two years before a vacant home can be seized for nonpayment of taxes, according to the city treasurer’s office.
Municipalities should be able to intervene earlier, Mallach said, so that a property doesn’t deteriorate to the point that it’s too expensive to repair.
“State laws should provide some way if a property is clearly vacant and abandoned to expedite giving that to … someone who can do something with a property,” he said. “They might still be able to rehab it for a reasonable cost. But if that property sits there for three to four years, it’s just going to deteriorate.”
According to DNS records, more than 1,800 homes were listed as being vacated prior to 2019, which means those properties have remained empty for two or more years. Given the typically old housing stock of Milwaukee, harsh winters, risks of vandalism and tendency for the homes to be stripped of copper wiring, a property’s descent into disrepair is often swift and hard to reverse.
Once this occurs, Mallach said, it’s much more cost-effective to tear the properties down rather than put what may amount to $80,000 to $100,000 into repairing them. “You can take a house down for $12,000 to $15,000, but you can’t fix it up for anything close to that,” he said.
It’s a particular problem in areas of the city where property values already are low, especially areas that were redlined years ago as neighborhoods populated by people of color were deemed “high-risk” and lenders, insurers and real estate agents denied them services. Many of those neighborhoods still have low property values, which makes rehabbing vacant homes difficult.
As a result, many decay for years until they are demolished.
‘We’re doing our own project’
Vacant lots don’t have to become an eyesore or a dumping ground, according to Mallach, who has studied efforts to address the problem in other cities.
“Once you’ve done that on a lot, people don’t trash it,” Mallach said, adding that University of Pennsylvania researchers found that beautification also made people feel safer.
Other strategies include faux surveillance cameras or barriers so trucks cannot back up to unload trash, Methu said.
“I’d like to see the city of Milwaukee use money from that lighting fee to put some lighting there,” he said. “I saw the city put Dumpsters out when there were protests for George Floyd and I’m like, ‘Why couldn’t you do this for the illegal dumping problem?’ In areas where you’re comfortable with folks dumping, put Dumpsters (there).”
“All we want is to not have mice everywhere and to be able to walk outside and not smell garbage or take a picture and not feel like we live in a slum; and I don’t feel like that’s asking too much,” he said.
Securing funding for rehabilitation is often a significant hurdle, Methu said.
“The building where I’m experiencing illegal dumping next door, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to purchase and redevelop it using (tax-incremental financing),” he said.
That property at 3042 N. Palmer St. is a vacant home adjacent to his residential complex. Since 2018, Methu has been trying to secure funding to buy the building, which has sat vacant for 10 years, according to DNS records.
“Every year it sits, it costs more (to fix). It lowers neighboring property values. It is gathering trash, and it’s a visual nuisance,” he said.
The sight of boarded up, dilapidated homes and illegally dumped trash in vacant lots deters business development and other investment, said Cross, the 34th Street resident.
“In the past, people did not want to develop in our community,” Cross said. “Now that we have done a lot of work in our community, people from outside the community … have started to see Metcalfe Park. People feel like there’s some possibility, I might be able to develop. But they’re not doing it in a way that’s accessible for the people who live in the community. That’s why we’re doing our own project.”
Metcalfe Park Community Bridges has purchased two vacant homes, which the agency intends to repair and offer for sale to neighborhood residents.
“(To see) the homes that are in Metcalfe Park that have been torn down, it’s almost like tearing off a piece of your personality,” Cross said. “The character of the homes in Metcalfe Park are beautiful and as many as we can keep, we want to.”
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