Identify and promote opportunities to restore vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties that can provide temporary or permanent housing options, serve as community amenities, and provide community and ecosystem services.
The prevalence of vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated (VAD) properties across the country is a problem affecting many communities. While these terms are often interchangeable, there are slight differences in how they are defined.
Generally, “vacant” properties refer to those parcels and/or structures that are not occupied, but are still publicly or privately owned, whereas “abandoned” properties are uninhabited and have no current owner.See footnote 1
In Louisiana, there is no universal legal definition for vacant, abandoned, or deteriorated parcels in state statute or regulation. Under Title 33 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, Louisiana state law includes definitions for the terms “abandoned property” and “vacant or not lawfully occupied” for redevelopment and other local authorities in some parishes and incorporated municipalities.See footnote 2 For example, in Title 33, these lands are defined as follows for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority:
- Abandoned property: “[P]roperty that is vacant or not lawfully occupied.”See footnote 3
- Vacant or Not Lawfully Occupied: “[I]nclude but shall not be limited to any premises which are not actually occupied by its owner, lessee, or other invitee or if occupied, without utilities, and which has been left unsecured or inadequately secured from unauthorized entry to the extent that the premises could be entered and utilized by vagrants or other uninvited persons as a place of harborage or any premises which by reason of dilapidation, deterioration, state of disrepair, or other such status is otherwise detrimental to or endangers the public safety, health, or welfare.”See footnote 4
However, these state-based legal definitions are not the same — nor do they even exist — for all Louisiana parishes and incorporated municipalities. Further, local governments in Louisiana may have different regulatory definitions for these types of parcels and/or policy guidance about how they should be identified and handled.
There are other terms that can also be used in addition to or instead of these land classifications. For example, while there is no singular description or definition for “blight” in relation to properties, the word blighted commonly refers to “vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and houses in derelict or dangerous shape, as well as environmental contamination. . . . The most useful description is ‘land so damaged or neglected that it is incapable of being beneficial to a community without outside intervention.’’’See footnote 5 For example, in Title 33 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, blighted properties for the the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority are defined as a “commercial or residential premises, including lots which have been declared vacant, uninhabitable, and hazardous by an administrative hearing officer acting pursuant to applicable [state] law.”See footnote 6 However, the term “blighted properties” is often “fraught with complex racial history,” reflective of a long history of racial redlining and discriminatory practices, that traditionally refers to “slum[s]. . . [and] substandard housing.”See footnote 7 While codified in state and some local laws in Region Seven and beyond, the terms vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated or “VAD” will be used throughout the Regional Vision instead of blighted, unless otherwise noted in the case studies or elsewhere to be responsive to the local context.
The existence of VAD parcels is often the result of multiple variables, including the condition of neighborhoods within the community, the health of the local housing market, and the strength of the local economy.See footnote 8 Regardless of their cause, statistically, VAD properties tend to be found in concentrated areas — almost 40 percent of the nation’s vacant homes are located in just ten percent of Census tracts.See footnote 9
Description: Photograph of a VAD property in Louisiana. Credit: Build Baton Rouge, Imagine Plank Road Plan for Equitable Development 4 (Nov. 2019), available at https://buildbatonrouge.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Imagine-Plank-Road_Final-Report_2019.11.06_web.pdf.
Louisiana is not immune to this problem, as the existence of VAD properties is a growing issue across the state.See footnote 10 Regardless of where they are located, the presence of these properties often correlates to increased crime rates, declining property values throughout an entire community, increased risks to health and welfare, and higher costs for municipalities to maintain them.See footnote 11 In instances where a property has been identified as a VAD property, per Louisiana state law, some redevelopment authorities or parishes “have the power to acquire by purchase, gift, bequest, expropriation, negotiation” blighted properties.See footnote 12
Tackling the problem of these types of parcels and their associated impacts can bring a variety of positive benefits to a community, depending on how a parcel is reused or repurposed. For local governments, redeveloping properties and structures to make them livable once more can help return these properties to tax rolls and increase tax bases.See footnote 13 Converting these properties to green spaces or as a parcel on which resilience projects can be designed and implemented can bring the added health, social, and mental benefits discussed in Objective 1.2 and Objective 2.2. By restoring VAD properties, local governments can turn what was previously a liability into a community asset.See footnote 14
For a more thorough discussion of how VAD properties can be redeveloped to provide housing options, see Goal Three and Goal Four.
How to Make Progress on This Objective
As previously stated, the reasons for the existence of VAD properties depend on local factors.See footnote 15 Thus, determining how to reuse or repurpose these types of parcels or structures and for what purpose will need to be a decision made on a community- or neighborhood-specific level. There are, however, general legal and policy options/steps parishes and municipalities in Region Seven and beyond can take to make progress on restoring VAD properties. These include:
- Mapping, data, and ordinances;
- Acquisitions; and
While not exhaustive, these legal and policy options can help to begin the process of converting VAD properties into green spaces that could benefit the community. It is important to remember, however, that the most effective laws, plans, policies, and projects for resilience districts and green spaces are community-specific, and should be designed to fit the specific needs and vulnerabilities of the neighborhood or district in question.
As established in Objective 1.1, plans can set a comprehensive framework that guides how laws, policies, and projects are implemented. Relating to this goal specifically, plans can establish a community’s priorities and objectives pertaining to open spaces and green projects, and how VAD properties can be identified, acquired, and redeveloped to achieve these goals. These properties serve as a unique opportunity to further develop and implement specific projects that go towards advancing the goals set forth in local plans. Planning and strategy documents should be the guiding force behind any other government action to redevelop these types of properties for beneficial community purposes — including identifying and mapping the properties, determining which properties to acquire, and deciding what projects to implement — to facilitate more comprehensive planning and decisionmaking that aligns with a community’s needs.
For example, Miami-Dade County’s Sea Level Rise Strategy explicitly outlines expanding greenways and blueways and creating green neighborhoods, two of the major goals recommended by the strategy. To achieve these goals, county officials will work with public and private partners to identify VAD lots and properties and work through voluntary buyout programs to acquire these parcels — all for the purposes of expanding green- and blueways and creating more open spaces and environmental amenities for nearby communities. Examples like this show that the most successful projects are those that incorporate comprehensive planning at the outset to better guide decisionmaking and project implementation relating to green infrastructure and open spaces.
Mapping, Data, and Ordinances
Identifying and mapping VAD properties should be one of the first steps in any process that works to repurpose these properties. “A significant challenge for most jurisdictions is to identify the number, location, and ownership of vacant properties.”See footnote 16 This is largely due to the fact that information about properties with tax delinquencies, vacancies, environmental contamination issues, and more is often spread across several agencies.See footnote 17
Determining ownership or responsibility for a property can also be cumbersome. This is especially true for heirs’ property, which may be owned by multiple individuals simultaneously and/or has been passed down through generations. Clear title to a home may also make identifying ownership difficult, especially in instances where property owners have more than one mortgage or lien on their property due to a variety of reasons relating to disaster events and flooding, including bank-funded home repairs post-disaster.
To help determine where these properties are located and who retains ownership, localities can use local tax records or implement/expand VAD property laws or ordinances. While using these two tools is not inclusive of all the ways local governments can determine where VAD properties exist within community boundaries, it is, however, a good place to start. For information on the acquisition process of VAD properties (rather than this discussion on how to identify them), see Objective 1.5.
- Federal Tools: several federal agencies retain data and mapping that identifies properties that are VAD. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates parcels that potentially contain hazardous substances or contaminants as brownfields, and maintains a database that tracks their ownership and redevelopment.See footnote 18
- County or Parish Tax Records: County — or in Louisiana’s case, parish — tax records typically contain a variety of information that can be used to determine who owns and is responsible for a property, if taxes are being paid on the property, when it was sold, and additional data.See footnote 19
- VAD Property Laws and Ordinances: VAD property laws and ordinances can help governments keep track of where these parcels are located. These types of laws can take various forms. For example, in some places, vacant property ordinances require that owners register their property with the local government and pay a fee.See footnote 20 Officials can also learn about “potential vacant and abandoned properties through registration, neighbor complaints, visual surveys, property tax delinquency, or other means.”See footnote 21 In other jurisdictions, these types of ordinances define key terms (occupied, vacant, abandoned, and unoccupied), and then streamline and define when inspections should be completed relating to the property.See footnote 22 Streamlining a process like this can help enforcement be applied systematically, which ultimately controls how VAD properties can be secured by local governments when taxes or liens on the property remain unpaid.See footnote 23
For example, the City of North Miami, Florida’s Good Neighbor Stormwater Park project began with identifying properties that could be redeveloped for green project purposes with data supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA). In cases where a homeowner had filed for flood insurance twice in a ten-year period, FEMA designated the property as a repetitive loss property. Because of this designation, the City of North Miami was able to prioritize which repetitive loss properties would best facilitate stormwater management within at-risk communities. Ultimately, North Miami purchased some of the repetitive loss properties and redeveloped them into a stormwater park that offers stormwater retention benefits, community amenities, and open, green spaces.
Parishes and municipalities should also consider overlaying additional data and maps relating to flood risk, parks and open spaces, land use and housing development patterns, etc. This can help policymakers and project implementers determine which areas within a community should be prioritized for green projects and open space development. Data-driven decisions can set the stage for comprehensive, successful planning and regulatory updates.
While acquisitions are discussed in more detail in Objective 1.5, it is important to establish some of the ways in which a parish or municipality can work with communities and private landowners to reuse or repurpose VAD properties in ways that enhance regional and local resilience. While not inclusive, these tools and programs may include:
- Voluntary buyouts: Voluntary buyouts are programs in which the government “generally purchases a property from a willing seller, demolishes existing structures on the property, . . .prohibits future development, and allows the property to naturally revert to open space.”See footnote 24;
- Open space acquisitions: These acquisitions include procedures where governments can acquire title from willing sellers to private lands for conservation purposes; and
- Implementing or expanding VAD property laws within a community or parish: These actions involve more broadly construing or promulgating streamlined VAD property laws, as described in the previous section.
Governments can establish new acquisition programs to support these resilience purposes or expand existing ones by working through entities like land banks, redevelopment authorities, as well as parks and open space departments. Governments can also partner with other land management or community development organizations like land trusts and community-based and environmental nonprofits.
It is important to note that any government acquisition projects must be guided by equity and resilience considerations. Oftentimes, there may be a historical or cultural legacy around land ownership in a particular place. For example, many properties and homes in Louisiana have complex histories relating to home ownership, heirs properties, and other ownership challenges like questions about clear title. While the Regional Vision does not go into depth on these complicated and challenging issues, local governments should, at a minimum, approach questions around acquisitions and VAD properties by understanding the history, use, and land ownership of a property. First and foremost, officials should complete a thorough title search and meaningfully engage with residents to learn about who lives on the property and who has owned it in the past. In addition, governments should work with affected community members to pursue comprehensive actions that may help to realize the many benefits of an acquisition, but also seek to minimize the potential consequences of redevelopment or conservation projects, like displacement and green gentrification (discussed more below).
As previously stated, the reason behind VAD properties within a community depends on the individual characteristics and challenges facing a location.See footnote 25 As a result, deciding how a parcel should be reused and for what purpose should be determined on a case-by-case, community-by-community basis.See footnote 26
As a whole, effective VAD remediation strategies need “to be flexible and include various approaches depending on the individual property and the neighborhood’s needs and opportunities.”See footnote 27 Property reuse can include projects focused on (1) green spaces and nature-based solutions and (2) affordable housing and community development. These projects discussed in the following parts are not exhaustive of all potential options. While these two types of project aims would ideally be and are often integrated, for the purposes of the Regional Vision, they will be discussed separately here.
Nature-Based, Green Projects
Acquiring VAD properties and developing them with an eye toward resilience will likely require at least some demolition and restoration actions. While health and community benefits that green projects can provide have been outlined in Objective 1.2, at the very least, converting these types of properties to provide nature-based amenities for communities can have positive impacts like improved community health (both mental and physical), better social cohesion between neighbors, higher property values throughout the community, and enhanced economic stability.
Potential types of green projects include:
Description: A green infrastructure installation.
Credit: The Water Collaborative.
From a general perspective, when cities or local governments work to tear down vacant or deteriorated structures, “demolition activities should be paired with interim urban greening strategies that can stabilize neighborhoods and markets along with midrange reuse opportunities for turning some of these lots into parks, gardens, urban farms, and green infrastructure that can increase property values for surrounding homes, improve public health, and improve water quality through reductions in impervious surfaces.”See footnote 28
Where government acquisitions from willing sellers are not possible, supported, or cost-prohibitive, parishes and municipalities can also pursue partnership opportunities to develop open spaces and green projects. In one innovative, collaborative project, New Orleans’s Office of Resilience partnered directly with the Sisters of St. Joseph to lease a property that had previously housed the sisters’ convent. As a result of several extreme storms and flooding events, the property became derelict and abandoned.See footnote 29 The sisters offered to lease the 25-acre property to the city on the condition that it be used to create a nature-based amenity for the community, which ultimately resulted in the Mirabeau Water Garden Project.
Housing and Community Development
Developing VAD properties with green amenities in mind can go hand in hand with creating resilient, affordable housing opportunities on properties that previously did not serve a community or provide any sort of tax base to the local government. Relating to affordable housing, the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Strategy directly recommends that vacant parcels or parking lots be elevated on infill and used to create affordable and mixed-use housing around transit.See footnote 30 Redeveloping VAD properties with economic growth in mind (and not specifically using nature-based methods or projects) can help revitalize a community, bring jobs to the area, improve streets and transportation, and increase local municipal income. These types of projects and programs, however, must work to ensure that homeowners in these neighborhoods are able to remain within the community after the projects have been completed.See footnote 31 For more information on developing affordable housing within a community, look to Goal Three and Goal Four.
Crosscutting Considerations and Practice Tips
When identifying and promoting ways to restore VAD properties to facilitate greater neighborhood resilience and provide community amenities, decisionmakers may consider the following crosscutting considerations and practice tips that apply to each of the above types of plans:
- Avoid environmental gentrification
- Plan with an eye toward implementation and maintenance
- Build public-private-nonprofit-community partnerships
- Leverage existing data and resources
- Engage communities throughout planning and implementation to encourage buy-in
These tips are based on priority implementation best practices and considerations most relevant to this specific objective and do not present an exhaustive list for regional and local planners and policymakers. In addition to this objective, decisionmakers should, at a minimum, also refer to Goal Five for crosscutting considerations and practice tips including structuring equitable and inclusive community engagement processes and evaluating opportunities to build public-private-nonprofit-community partnerships.
It is important to acknowledge that every jurisdiction will be starting from a different place and have a unique local context and needs, among other factors. Therefore, these considerations and practice tips could be adopted individually, collectively, or not at all. It will be up to policymakers to work directly with their communities and other key stakeholders and partners to assess and determine potential tools and approaches to implement this goal and objective.
- Avoid environmental gentrification: While greening policies and projects can offer significant community benefits, adding green spaces in underresourced communities may lead to increased cost burden and the rapid transition of a community, especially in areas experiencing population growth. Green spaces are in high demand and can be a significant neighborhood amenity.See footnote 32 Adding these types of spaces can increase rents and purchase prices for homes, displacing lower-income residents who are typically people of color.See footnote 33 Balance must be struck between creating a community that is just “green enough” to make neighborhoods healthier and more attractive while ensuring that those who currently live there can still afford to do so.See footnote 34
- Plan with an eye toward implementation and maintenance: Governments should avoid “planning for planning’s sake” or overplanning. This can result in several administrative and social consequences. First, this can lead to wasted time and resources. On the community side, too much planning may confuse or frustrate people trying to understand how different plans further a government’s resilience goals. In addition, governments can risk burning out residents by asking them to contribute their time and expertise again and again. Moreover, planning processes leading to nowhere can erode faith or trust in government with community members that expect and need plans to lead to immediate action, which can be especially true relating to plans, policies, or projects that relate to flooding. Instead, plans, policies and projects should be developed with the intention that they will be implemented in ways that support community-driven resilience laws, policies, and projects.
In instances where a green project or open space has been created for the community and replace what was previously a deteriorated or derelict property, lack of maintenance can also lead to an erosion of faith or trust in the government. Projects that involve actions like the creation of community gardens and conservation wetlands will require continued maintenance from project implementers in order to maintain their benefits to the community. Without maintenance, even the best intentioned green projects can fall back into disrepair, creating yet another VAD property in a community yet again. As such, when these plans, policies, and programs are developed, it is important not only to design them with implementation in mind, but to also take into account the cost (both time and monetary) of their maintenance.
Build public-private-nonprofit-community partnerships: Cleaning up and developing VAD properties with green infrastructure and open spaces in mind is an expensive undertaking, and typically one that a local government may not have the capacity or resource to do alone. Partnering with private developers and nonprofit organizations can help ease the initial financial burden and upfront costs associated with cleanup. Federal and state resources also exist that finance cleanup efforts. In some cases, working with individual partners within the community can even help with acquiring less than fee rights to a property for the purposes of redevelopment, as is seen in the Mirabeau Gardens (Gentilly District) case study (further discussed in Objective 1.5).
- Leverage existing data and resources: Determining where VAD property is located does not often require a total recreation of the wheel. Oftentimes, the federal government or local organizations are already tracking properties that have fallen into disrepair, are at risk of continued flooding, or lay abandoned or vacant. Policymakers and project implementers can use public and private partnerships they have built (see previous point) and existing federal and state databases to determine where these types of parcels exist — and can overlay data relating to other characteristics of a community like flood risk, socio-economic status, existing parks and amenities, etc. — to determine where to prioritize VAD property redevelopment.
- Engage communities throughout planning and implementation to encourage buy-in: The life cycle of planning processes should begin with the community and continue beyond the point when a physical planning document is finalized. Education is particularly important in relation to the benefits of green projects and open spaces. This is especially true in instances where VAD properties are converted to offer green, safe, community amenities. Redeveloping plots of land that previously caused risks to the health and welfare of a community (see the introduction to this part for more information on the negative impacts of these types of properties) into a community garden or pocket park can help to transform a community. Communities are more likely to push for the design and implementation of these types of plans, policies, or programs in their own communities if they are aware of the numerous benefits that green infrastructure and access to open, green spaces can bring to their neighborhoods. A bottom-up push for project or plan implementation can be extremely persuasive when it comes to prioritizing a parishes’ limited resources.
The summaries below highlight resources and case studies available in Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse that are relevant to this objective. They illustrate how many of the above benefits, practice tips, and planning, legal, and policy tools were or are being evaluated and used in practice in different jurisdictions. To learn more and navigate to the Adaptation Clearinghouse, click on the “View Resource” buttons.