Thriving Communities Institute: From Vacancy to Vitality

March 19, 2013 in ACT, Conditions and Trends, economic development, Housing, News, Toolkiit

In 2011, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy launched an effort to combat the devastating impact of abandonment and disinvestment on Northeast Ohio’s core cities. Entitled the “Thriving Communities Institute,” the initiative targeted the reduction of vacant residential properties, primarily through demolition. These properties, according to Institute Director Jim Rokakis, reduce property values in our neighborhoods. Studies show that one vacant property on a street will significantlyreduce the value of adjacent homes. Soon, due to loss of value, foreclosures and “bank walk-aways,” the nearby homes become vacant as the disease spreads. Soon the entire neighborhood is dead and diseased, having been destroyed by this contagious and toxic process. Then the adjacent areas are infected and the disease spreads further … predictably, relentlessly, and with devastating consequences.

The impact of disinvestment in the urban core also has negative implications for the region’s natural environment. Depressed urban markets drive potential residents further away from the center and into suburban and exurban communities. The demand for housing and retail services away from the core increases development pressure on previously undeveloped open spaces and agricultural lands. The abandoned housing left behind prevents reuse of urban properties for urban gardens, parks, and greenways. Residential vacancies cause unnecessary consumption of “greenfield” land for development while prohibiting the repurposing of unoccupied land for environmental remediation; it is a two-edged sword.

According to Director Jim Rokakis, Thriving Communities Institute is already lending its hand to transform vacant and unproductive properties into new opportunities to attract economic growth, to bring green space to the region’s cities, and to support safe, beautiful neighborhoods. In working with community leaders in Northeast Ohio, the Institute has learned that urban revitalization is a process, one with many steps supported by great partnerships. Thriving Communities is helping secure vacant, unhealthy properties by establishing and supporting county land banks throughout the region. County land banks provide counties with much-needed ability to quickly acquire foreclosed and vacant property. These land banks can safely hold a distressed property, clean its title, and prepare it for a better day. The goal is to secure vacant properties – which would otherwise attract crime, lower neighboring home values, and incur public services costs – so that they can be put to better use in the future.

Additional information about the Thriving Communities Institute is available through their website: http://thrivingcommunitiesinstitute.org/. This site includes opportunities to provide support, become better engaged, and share stories or photographs. Questions about the Institute may be directed to either Jim Rokakis (jrokakis@wrlandconservancy.org) or Robin Thomas (rthomas@wrlandconservancy.org).

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