Monday, May 15, 2017

Perspectives on Abandoned Houses in a Time of Dystopia: Part 3: A Series by Kermit Lind

[This is the third in a series of essays by Kermit Lind, Clinical Professor of Law Emeritus, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University.]

Various observers see different things when they look at houses and buildings abandoned during the mortgage crisis. From different, sometimes competing, points of view, communities need a sustained collaboration of perspectives—local public officials from different departments and agencies, civic and public interest groups, community advocates--using all relevant data and strategic solutions to deal with new threats to residential neighborhoods. This blog post continues an on-going look at a few examples of what different people see in blighted dwellings.

The first blog post in this series is available here.  The second blog post is available here.

Modernization of obsolete code compliance policies and procedures is a critical need for dealing with the surge of abandoned housing. Financially able owners and parties legally responsible for housing conditions should not be able to escape their legal obligation to maintain the condition of their real property and to comply with court orders requiring compliance after conviction or judgment. Creditors with the legal means to control and maintain their collateral should ensure that the collateral’s condition does not destroy the value of neighboring houses or other lenders’ collateral.

Enforcement officers need to act strategically to obtain maximum compliance with the limited resources available. Focusing on repeat offenders with the highest volume of violations will lead to more benefit for neighborhoods than random or complaint-driven enforcement.

Effective role models are available—most notably, with a sustained collaboration between civic groups and public managers at the local community level, a coalition of the willing and determined.  A familiar model is the Vacant Abandoned Property Action Council in Cleveland, Ohio, started in 2005. Recently, a property blight abatement movement in Memphis TN was launched in 2016 with a Blight Elimination Charter fashioned by a coalition of city, county and community leaders.  The Charter coalition is now directing a strategic campaign to abate and prevent housing and neighborhood blight.  Public policy and law is being upgraded at both the local and state levels, a new regional land bank was started, a real property parcel-based “data hub” is being developed for both government and nonprofit use, and perhaps most important of all, the community is rallying to support the campaign.  The results are stimulating more private investment and focusing critical public resources on property blight recovery with nuisance abatement and neighborhood renewal. 

In these and other examples, senior and managerial staff of public safety, municipal law enforcement, community development and civic agencies joining to lead the reform needed to cope with local neighborhood housing disasters. When a determined coalition of policy and program managers communicate regularly across organizational boundaries and bureaucratic silos, they can avoid unintended conflicts with each other, coordinate policy advocacy, partner in program planning, and work strategically toward common objectives.

Sustainable neighborhood community development ultimately requires the coordinated engagement of well-organized and civically informed community residents collaborating with their local government agencies.  Good codes and government code enforcement for houses and neighborhoods are critical; but neighborhood sustainability also requires social justice, inclusion of diversity, neighborliness, and a commitment to the common good of the neighborhood now as well as for its future.  Yes, neighborhood sustainability ultimately depends upon codes of moral social conduct that require deference to the shared values of a community of property owners and residents.  It is only by standing together that neighbors and communities can withstand the dystopia that now threatens aging neighborhoods.

This is a revised and shorter version of the paper published in Probate & Property, Vol. 29, No. 2, (March/April 2015) (American Bar Association): pp. 1-9, and available here.

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