The hidden costs of vacant properties

The St. Louis Post Dispatch published an interesting story today titled “Tipping Point: Thousands of vacant buildings take heavy toll on St. Louis police, firefighters.” The point of the story, which is part of a series, is to focus on something that most people probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. The author makes a convincing case that the costs associated with vacant buildings are significant:

Fire and police officials say it’s hard to know exactly how much the buildings where no one lives or works are costing taxpayers. But they can point to some statistics.

They know, for example, that vacant buildings account for more than 40 percent of the fires they have to fight each year…

Police officers, too, could perform more community outreach if they didn’t have to spend time on structures that serve as a nexus for criminal activity.

A Post-Dispatch analysis of St. Louis police data shows that about a third of all calls for service within the past year were within 150 feet of a property identified as vacant by the city…

In addition to responding to calls for service, the police department also devotes six police officers — one for each district — and Sgt. John McLaughlin to the Problem Properties Unit, which coordinates with other city divisions to deal with buildings — some vacant — where criminal activity is chronic…

“Criminals use these places to hide their guns and drugs,” says McLaughlin, the sergeant assigned to the Problem Properties Unit.

A St. Louis Chief Investigator says fires often destroy evidence of what started them and even when the evidence of arson can be found, that doesn’t necessarily point them to the person responsible.

Police work to seal up vacant properties at a cost of about $800,000 per year, but the Post Dispatch notes that it’s common for police to be called out to buildings that have already been boarded up, sometimes more than once. In a video that’s including in the report, police officers say the most common thing to find inside are human waste and drug needles. They occasionally find homeless people inside who are looking to escape the cold and when they do they usually try to find them some alternative shelter.

Today’s article is part of a series on the topic. In a previous article published in September, the city estimated the cost of vacant buildings as $66 million per year:

When Shadiah Thomas steps out the front door of her duplex in the 3900 block of Labadie Avenue, she sees crumbling homes all around her.

To her right are five vacant buildings, including one frequented by drug users and two gutted by fire. To her left, next to an empty lot, is a two-family brick building that’s been empty for at least three years. Across the street, facing her, are more vacants.

“It’s depressing here,” she says…

In a city of just over 300,000 people now — a big drop from its postwar high of 856,000 — there are about 25,000 abandoned properties, according to a city estimate. More than 7,000 of those are vacant buildings, including about 4,000 that have been condemned…

A growing sense of urgency appears to have gripped City Hall, where the Krewson administration is working closely with a coalition of nonprofit and community development groups on the vacancy problem.

Krewson’s office estimates vacant properties cost the city as much as $66 million last year. Vacant lots need mowing and tree removal. They foster illegal dumping and use up police time because of the crime they attract. Over the last two years, city firefighters have responded to more than 500 fires at vacant properties, Krewson’s office says.

Of course, not every city in the U.S. is facing this problem but there are others that are. This graphic was produced by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy based on government data and published earlier this year at Curbed:

As you can see, St. Louis is in the middle of that graph and other cities have comparable or even bigger problems. In every case, the vacant properties are a potential magnet for crime and a drain on already tight resources.