Sunday, August 28, 2011

A New Ballgame for Urban Blight in Texas

Some of our biggest Super Neighborhood meetings in Braeburn are on the topic of urban blight. It’s the same in neighborhoods throughout Houston, and I would imagine in other cities throughout Texas. Neighbors are mad about urban blight, and we demand that something be done.

It was never easy for the City to condemn a blighted building. Owners were protected by strong private property rights laws. It took years of negotiation; letters; inspections; court dates; hearings; and lawsuits before a blighted building could be condemned. Now, a Texas Supreme Court case, and a series of new Texas laws are going to make it even more difficult.

It’s really a new ballgame for urban blight in Texas. We need to adapt to it, or we risk losing our neighborhoods.

1: Recognize real urban blight, and know what our goals are. A low-rent apartment complex that’s fully occupied and meets code, isn’t blighted. Even when the property is blighted, it might be possible for it to be rehabilitated rather than condemned. Of course we should always be leery of ‘lipstick on pigs’ (cheap, cosmetic repairs to buildings that need much more.)

2: Keep calling the City to report blighted (“nuisance”) properties. Even if the City faces new hurdles to condemning blighted buildings, it can still issue fines and bring owners to hearings. If the owner faces enough of these hearings and fines, usually they either fix the problems, or sell at their own accord to someone who will.

3: Lobby private real-estate developers to tear down blighted buildings, like we lobby the City to do it. Under the new laws the City can’t force owners of blighted buildings to sell for anything other than public use. But private developers can still buy blighted buildings, demolish them, and build other things on those sites. That’s just standard real-estate practice.

4: Lobby for Local, State, and Federal incentives to help developers address urban blight. There are millions of dollars available every year for subsidized development. A lot of that money goes to new development on open land; when it could actually be used to help rehabilitate or redevelop blighted buildings. There are also programs that are specifically designed to help seniors and low-income families repair their homes. These programs could be used to help repair blighted houses in our neighborhoods.

Even before the new laws, my neighbors would get frustrated with the City for not working fast enough to condemn blighted buildings. Now it’s going to be even slower (if they can do it at all). It’s a new ballgame, and we need to adapt to it; or watch as urban blight kills our neighborhoods.

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