Grassroots urban renewal

David Brown Kinloch could have lived elsewhere, but he chose to move into an abandoned home in a Louisville, Ky., neighborhood others were leaving in droves.

In the 25 years since, Brown Kinloch has seen his Phoenix Hill neighborhood transformed from unsightly rows of vacant houses into a model of urban renewal. Under the stewardship of an active neighborhood association, new homes sprouted on weed-infested lots and boarded-up houses were renovated.

"We were told that you couldn't build new housing inside the old city of Louisville," said Brown Kinloch, a renewable-energy developer. "We proved that not only could you do it, if you made them affordable . . . they'd sell right away."

Grassroots strategies to reclaim distressed neighborhoods are taking hold in cities such as Philadelphia (notably in Southwest Center City), Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit. Fighting to reclaim neighborhoods blighted by decay and neglect, community groups and governments are working together to buy lots, tear down buildings, create parks, and court businesses.

But it is an uphill battle.

More than 1.2 million residential properties went into foreclosure in 2008, according to an estimate by Alan Mallach, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. The surge has spun off a vast inventory of bank-owned properties. The combination has caused housing prices to nose-dive and can be a contributor to more crime and lower tax revenue.

The National Vacant Properties Campaign, funded by private and government grants, has been part of the fight. The group offers guidance to help cities, counties, and states reclaim such spaces.

It estimates the number of chronically vacant properties is in the millions. And the short-term outlook for a drop is bleak, with millions more homes expected to go into foreclosure in the coming years.

"There are just too many forces working in the system for anybody to expect a turnaround in the rate of foreclosures . . . anytime soon," Mallach said. Still, there are many local success stories.

In Pittsburgh, with 6,000 vacant buildings, the demolition budget has more than doubled for the purpose of razing condemned blights. More than 100 abandoned lots have been turned into urban farms, community gardens, and the like.

Some communities also are turning to land banks to help manage the flood of idled property and help enable communities to pursue more strategic approaches to development.

"If you can pull together larger blocks of land, then you have a real asset to offer to developers," said Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, an organizing group for inner-ring suburbs of Detroit.

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