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As employment opportunities and affordable housing options have moved from city industrial corridors to the suburbs, the number of vacant housing units in the United States has increased by forty-four percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a Brookings Institution report. The economic and social costs of foreclosures and vacancy are well known here in Chicago, where some 200,000 units are vacant. Chicago and Cook County have been losing residents since the early 2000s, with the housing crisis accelerating population decline. Recently, an article featured in Crain’s Chicago Business asked a blunt but obvious question: Will the foreclosure crisis kill Chicago?

With 10 percent of units in Cook County now vacant and the likelihood of that percentage to continue to rise, it is clear that we can’t rely upon the private sector alone. One study found that each foreclosure within one-eighth mile of a home in Chicago results in a 1 to 2 percent decline in its property value. Add into the equation the effects of blight and increased crime and values decline even further along with quality of life indicators. It’s hard to see any way out of this economic and social conundrum. However, if you take a step back and look at the problem from a new angle, it becomes clear that with strategic and creative efforts there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. But these efforts won’t be successful without making some tough choices. In some areas, the demolition of vacant, dilapidated buildings might present the only path toward neighborhood stabilization and eventual revitalization.

Bridget Gainer, Cook County Commissioner and Cook County Land Bank Chairman, addressed the necessity of demolition in the Crain’s article. “We see ‘demo’ as a negative activity, like you’re destroying things, you’re taking away…In some ways, it actually makes the surrounding areas more valuable. It’s almost like pruning a tree.” As a student studying how the environment intersects with economic and community development, this analogy resonates strongly with me. In a county where the supply of homes already exceeds demand, it makes sense to remove the dead limbs—houses beyond repair—to free up resources to be used by the branches that can be saved—houses able to be rehabbed in areas near anchor institutions, jobs and transportation.

Think about it. What could these currently distressed neighborhoods look like if there were the resources and freedom to create? I recently attended the Regional Home Ownership Preservation Initiative Annual Forum, and during one of the panel discussions a woman from a neighborhood grappling with vacancy issues asked why housing is simply replaced with more housing without considering other uses. This is an excellent point that often gets lost during the understandable rush to revive struggling communities. Success doesn’t have to look like the past, and rightsizing the housing supply to adjust to the new normal of lower density doesn’t automatically equate to community failure.

The removal of blighted buildings opens the door to new opportunities like the creation of community gardens and orchards, pedestrian pathways, bike trails and parks, to name a few. These are innovative uses that would increase the attractiveness of the neighborhood, property values of adjacent homes and the quality of life of community members. Local municipalities could partner with block associations or similar groups to maintain these parcels to encourage community engagement and keep costs down.

Clearly demolition in many instances is not an easy decision and can be painful. As a child, I watched old wooden houses come down on my grandparent’s block in South Holland—houses filled with memories. As the Cook County Land Bank prepares to acquire its first properties in 2014, incorporating community input and using transparent decision criteria will be crucial as it moves forward with demolition and reuse strategies. Neighborhood revitalization will not happen easily and without unforeseen obstacles, but with strategic planning and allocation of resources it seems that there may be a path to recovery, not replication.

Photo Credit: Vacant Housing/shutterstock