The Chicago Tribune makes a case for land banks

A number of Rust Belt American cities have lost population in recent decades, including Chicago in the 2000s. A number of strategies have been proposed for what municipalities should do with the buildings and land that is no longer occupied. The Chicago Tribune makes a case for one solution: land banks.

By putting unwanted properties under centralized, local control, land banks fight urban blight. Instead of becoming an eyesore, safety hazard or worse, an abandoned home can be turned into a side lot for another home, or combined with other properties for green space or eventual development.

Municipalities have powers to clean up or knock down unmaintained properties — Chicago is among the best at it. But land banks can make the process more open, efficient and cost-effective…

Done right, land banks can enable cities to clear away unwanted structures and debris, giving the sites around them new life. Over time, parcels can be pieced together for optimal use. In St. Louis, Indianapolis and elsewhere, land banks have shown promise in dealing with properties nobody wants — a number certain to soar with so many homeowners behind on their mortgages.

When people leave and don’t come back, cities need to reorganize. Recent census figures show Detroit and Cleveland at 100-year population lows and falling. They can’t afford to stand pat and hope that somebody — anybody? — moves back in. Chicago lost 200,000 people in the last decade. In Flint, eventually, entire blocks will be cleared, enabling the city to consolidate services, save money and boost efficiency.

The article suggests that realtors are opposed to this in Illinois and this is holding back the legislative process. I wonder who is for or against this idea among the broader spectrum of political, business, and community leaders. I imagine there might be some others who might wonder at the ability of the city to manage all of this land. In this era of budget deficits, would this be expensive in Chicago in the short term? Additionally, the Tribune uses the term “urban blight,” a concept that might remind people of programs after World War II that allowed cities to wipe out affordable and/or ethnic neighborhoods.

The editorial cites a land bank in one other city: Flint, Michigan. Is Chicago in such trouble that it needs to use the same strategies as other Rust Belt cities that tend to draw more attention for population loss and vacant/abandoned/foreclosed properties? The editorial suggests foreclosures are a big problem in Chicago but I haven’t seen data that suggests the city has been hit that hard by foreclosures compared to a number of other places.

Cities that are losing population

The list of the top seven American cities in population loss (measured as a percentage of total population) is not surprising: New Orleans, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Rochester (NY). And outside of New Orleans, why these cities have lost population is also not difficult to figure out: a loss of manufacturing jobs.

But a list like this raises some questions about cities:

1. Is it that unusual for cities to lose population? If cities can boom, as these cities did during the industrial boom, why can’t they also go bust?

2. The headline on the article is misleading: “US cities running out of people.” There are still plenty of people in these communities – what is unusual is that the population is declining.

3. Is there a point where these population losses will stabilize? I always wonder this about cities – some people stay because there are still some jobs, particularly medical, municipal, and service jobs available.

4. Is there something the federal government could do to help these communities reverse these trends? Is there a public interest in not letting cities like these slowly die?

5. Measuring the city’s population is perhaps not the best way to go about it. How have the metropolitan populations changed? Are there still people in the region? This would make a difference.

Learning from Flint, Michigan

An article from Slate about Dan Kildee, a former politician in the Flint area and recent co-founder of a nonprofit dedicated to helping cities in trouble, and his ideas about turning around this hard-luck Michigan city. The general idea as the journalist describes it: “manifest-destiny-in-reverse for urban areas.”