East 144th, in the middle of Mount Pleasant, is about half a mile long. It is a stretch of mostly vacant, boarded-up properties, some damaged by fire, interspersed with remaining residents who are trapped. There are no buyers for houses on this street. Not now. One “For Sale” sign offers a boarded-up home for $99. City Council member Zachary Reed tells me that 10 years ago, there wasn’t a single vacant structure on East 144th.
The foreclosure crisis changed that. Almost every empty home on East 144th has been vandalized, with everything of value stripped from them. Internet-savvy thieves scour the eviction rolls on sheriff and court Web sites, poised to steal a property’s valuable items, often within hours of it being vacated. These houses are extensively damaged. And they make it nearly impossible to rehabilitate a Mount Pleasant home. “This street is killing a neighborhood we can save,” Reed told me.
Thousands of vacant, abandoned, functionally obsolete and vandalized properties are choking the life out of foreclosure-wracked places such as Mount Pleasant. The answer isn’t to scrape together money to try to fix these homes. The solution is to tear them down. Only a thoughtful and large-scale demolition program can save what’s left. Only the elimination of worthless housing can allow cities to reposition their neighborhoods for rebirth.
Government leaders are beginning to understand that. This past week, federal and state officials announced a $25 billion settlement with five banks over fraudulent foreclosure practices. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine saidhe would set aside $75 million of the state’s portion of the settlement for demolition in distressed communities. Because there is a direct link between bad mortgages and abandoned properties, it is fitting that a portion of that money be used to stabilize neighborhoods for those who are left.
More than 100,000 homes in Ohio are abandoned and face demolition, according to the attorney general. Officials in Michigan told me they estimate that at least 75,000 homes in their state could be torn down. But is not just a Rust Belt problem. Former Chicago building commissioner Rich Monocchio puts the number of vacant properties in that city at 18,000, with at least a third needing immediate demolition. Michael Braverman, the deputy commissioner of building in Baltimore, puts the number awaiting demolition there at 10,000 units.
The task in Baltimore — and in other cities with rowhouses, such as Washington — can be prohibitively expensive. Rowhouse units cannot be demolished until the side walls are given additional support, so it can cost roughly $60,000, more than six times the cost of tearing down free-standing homes in Cleveland or Detroit.