Why we must address housing vacancies even during a pandemic

We still do not know how the coronavirus pandemic will change the region’s housing market, in part, because governmental interventions like emergency rent assistance, eviction suspensions, and mortgage forbearance have provided needed support to homeowners, tenants, and landlords. 

Despite the uncertainty, communities still need to address housing issues, especially residential vacancies. Vacancies can be harmful to communities for many reasons. Unchecked, they can lead to a cycle of abandonment and disinvestment. Vacant properties also create health and safety risks, and destabilize neighborhoods. 

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The late-2000s recession fundamentally changed the housing market. Today, a smaller share of households own their homes (58 percent) than in 2000 (61 percent).1 About the same share of households rent. Most importantly, vacant units grew significantly throughout northeastern Illinois. While the number of vacant units in the region today is down from a late-2000s peak, it is still up by 84 percent since 2000. Eight out of 10 municipalities in the region have more vacant units now than in 2000. One out of four municipalities have a higher vacancy rate than that of the entire region (8.6 percent). 

While we know the region is still struggling to rebound from the last recession, the downturn yielded resources that municipalities can use now to make progress on vacancies amid the pandemic. Communities have worked with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC), the Illinois Housing Development Authority, and others to refine and implement tools to combat vacancies since the late-2000s recession.

There are many tools for addressing vacant buildings, including:

  • Vacant building ordinances (VBOs): These ordinances quickly identify who is responsible for a vacant or abandoned property. New fees and fines for failing to maintain a home can grab the attention of responsible parties and help resolve problems quicker. South Chicago Heights, for example, implemented a VBO in 2010 that improved recordkeeping of foreclosures and vacant properties.
  • Land banking: Many legal and financial barriers exist to reusing or repairing most vacant and abandoned properties like years of back taxes and clouded title. An increasingly common tool throughout the region, land banks can hold land tax free, clear a title by removing liens or claims, and extinguish back taxes. All these options can be essential when trying to attract buyers and investment. Cook County and south suburban communities already have access to them, and municipalities in Lake County are developing one to better address abandoned buildings.
  • Declarations of abandonment: Sometimes, a municipality prefers to own a vacant property, so it can control how it is used. Like demolition, the threat of asking the court for a declaration of abandonment can be an effective way to motivate a responsible party to take corrective action. Lansing officials recently have seen success with controlling vacant properties and reducing strain on municipal resources through abandonment petitions.

Progress on vacancies will be challenging during a recession and more so once the pandemic’s effects on the housing market become clearer. Even in times of crisis, municipalities can use these tools to redouble their efforts to battle vacancies and abandonment, since a successful response requires a sustained and multifaceted approach. Regional partners also can heed the recommendation in CMAP’s long-range ON TO 2050 plan to invest in disinvested areas. Our partners can consider creating new tools that can strengthen markets, collaborating to build local capacity, and facilitating communication between communities facing similar vacancy challenges.

Find more resources on tackling vacant property challenges.