One Nail at a Time: Building Deconstruction Law as a Tool to Demolish Abandoned Housing Problems
Spurred to act by 2003 survey estimates showing 7,913 abandoned properties in Indianapolis, city leaders proclaimed “war” on abandoned houses within the city and metropolitan area. But long since this 2003 declaration, the war in Indianapolis rages on today.
Unfortunately, Indianapolis is not alone. In many other Rust Belt cities, local leaders have long struggled to rid city blocks of abandoned houses that plague housing stocks by the thousands. While the wars in these cities have not yet been lost, the enemy seems to be winning on many fronts—in extreme cases, some Midwest cities even contemplate mass demolition, in order to literally “shrink” in size as critical volumes of abandoned homes drain city resources.
In most cases, just the initial step of quantifying the scope of a city’s abandonment problem remains guesswork because cities like Indianapolis have no real-time way to even count abandoned houses. Unfortunately for cities, the statistic is extremely difficult to discover or track because it is constantly in flux and hard to define or characterize. Though statistics are elusive, the effects of abandoned housing are well documented, and it is now known that abandonment renders much more than sporadic eyesores in the form of an empty structure: abandonment increases municipal costs of services and maintenance, aggravates neighborhood decay, decreases property values, increases crime, and creates hazards to health and safety.
So how can cities most efficiently remove existing levels of abandoned houses while deterring abandonment in the future? This article argues that if state and local governments coordinate legal and economic incentives for property owners to “recycle” obsolete or deteriorating houses, abandoned structures are less likely to persist, or become abandoned in the first place. Thus, the article provides an example of a potential legal framework for creating incentives to use an existing, but under-utilized, demolition industry practice to facilitate such a policy: building deconstruction. While never applied to real estate law, these proposed incentives resemble many laws already in place to manage consumer waste generation for products such as aluminum and plastic beverage containers—i.e. “Bottle Bills.”
At heart, time has shown that local government is limited in its capacity to efficiently handle the task, or cost, of managing thousands of properties being thrust upon local streets, the brunt of which is ultimately borne by the local taxpayers. In the end, if abandoned housing spirals out of control beyond a critical mass of properties, it becomes unsustainable. Traditional strategies targeting the problem—code enforcement, tax foreclosure, land banks, and receivership—are mostly reactive by definition because of statutory and constitutional constraints, and are usually only implicated after a local law has been violated.
Thus, a preemptive legal framework is needed that not only avoids state and federal legal issues, but turns the problem itself into an opportunity. A policy approach incentivizing deconstruction accomplishes this goal: it utilizes a powerful demolition technique to cure abandonment, but also, through the nature of the technique, provides social benefits to the local community along the way.