The problems of legacy cities

Legacy cities are trying to resolve problems that impede the regeneration of their economic, social and physical environments.

Problems existing in legacy cities include economic, social and physical problems that impact the health of the neighborhoods and communities in these cities. Michigan State University Institute for Public Policy and Social Research publication Integrated Asset Management: Dealing with Neglected Infrastructure and Vacant Property in Legacy Cities states the problems impacting legacy cities are: Thousands of vacant lots and blighted, abandoned structures. Many of these cities have nearly abandoned neighborhoods with fragmented populations created by a population loss of 25-55 percent over the last 40-50 years. The infrastructure is dilapidated and higher taxes and reduced property values have created an increased cost of living.

During the 19th century and early 20th century, Legacy cities such as Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, and Pontiac were once cities of industry with large populations, economic prosperity, strong housing and retail markets, and strong neighborhoods. Michigan State University Professor Eric Scorsone states:

Shrinking services is a problem for legacy cities. Legacy cities often face a difficult task of providing critical public services such as police and fire protection, and code enforcement at a time when their tax base and fiscal capacity are shrinking and state and federal governments are reducing support to local governments to balance their own budgets. Increasing taxes and cuts in public services are used to try to maintain revenue streams, but is a major deterrent when trying to attract and maintain population.

Why are there high rates of vacant and abandoned properties in Legacy cities? Thomas Reuters’ article Neighborhood Stabilization Strategies for Vacant and Abandoned Properties provides an overview of how the mortgage crisis increased the vacant and abandoned prosperities in Legacy cities. Reuter stated: “Throughout most of the United States, during the mortgage foreclosure crisis, residential mortgage foreclosures rose to levels not experienced in 75 years, while some communities simultaneously experienced declines in property values of 25 percent or more. There was an overwhelming concentration of foreclosures in particular neighborhoods, and the number of vacant and abandoned properties reached record levels.” In cities like Detroit and Flint, there were already a significant number of vacant lots and abandon homes due to the loss of the manufacturing industry and suburban flight, and the mortgage foreclosure crisis exacerbated long term existing housing and tax collection problems.

The signals outlined in Reuter’s article are indicators county and local governments can use to identify areas of potential neighborhood decline, which could lead to reduced fiscal sustainability. Reuter says, “In the vast majority of cases, a continuous failure to pay property taxes signals the intent of the owner to abandon the property. Other signals are owner cease to invest any resources in the property, and forgo all routine maintenance.”

Reuter also states the lengthy periods of time required by antiquated property tax foreclosure systems only encourages property owners to “milk” the equity from the property, tenants to continue to occupy the property, or squatters to live in the property without permission.  

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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