AuthorSwingle, Rosalie


"Behind every vacant property there is a story," (1) and that story represents a wickedly complex narrative. Consider the story of 900 N. Payson, a historic and tragic rowhouse located in Baltimore, Maryland. (2) This once-beautiful property was one of seventeen two-story rowhouses constructed on its street in West Baltimore in 1904, and it began housing mainly European immigrant families as early as 1905. (3) The first floor served as a butcher shop and a grocery store, and two families used the second floor as their home. (4) Ultimately, the fate of 900 N. Payson was influenced by the notorious color-line of West Baltimore, Fulton Avenue, which segregates white and Black communities. (5)

Fulton Avenue was only four blocks east of 900 N. Payson. (6) In December 1944, a white landlord rented one of the other Payson rowhouses to a Black family. Soon, white families began to move away while Black renters faced retaliation. (7) Upticks in crime, new chain businesses, and lower consumer populations led to the foreclosure of 900 N. Payson in the early 1960s, and it sat vacant until it was purchased for $101 in 1976. (8) Eventually, 900 N. Payson was sold to another family, but upon the husband's death in 1998, the property was only worth $7,500. (9) The widow, who no longer lived at the property, was unable to afford the property taxes for 900 N. Payson, but was also unable to sell or improve the property. (10)

Because the owners were no longer able to maintain the property, Baltimore city housing inspectors labeled 900 N. Payson as "unfit for human habitation in November 2008." (11) Typically, this constitutes a condemnation as fine notices are sent to the owner with current title of the property; (12) but in this case, that owner had passed away ten years prior. (13) The city continued to send certified mail to the deceased until a title company conducted research and found that the estate was undergoing tax-foreclosure proceedings in Baltimore Circuit Court. (14)

Baltimore continued to track the worsening state of 900 N. Payson during this time, and its city records showed three hundred separate observations of code violations and dangerous conditions on this property. (15) Eventually, Baltimore officials sent the title of the property to city attorneys in January 2013, but 900 N. Payson physically deteriorated for three more years as companies continued to transfer the property without documentation. (16) It was not until March 28, 2016, that the city and the West Baltimore community witnessed the full destruction of the dilapidated property--the entire rowhouse blew over and crushed Mr. Thomas "Phil" Lemmon, a sixty-nine-year-old resident who had been parked in front of 900 N. Payson in his favorite Cadillac. (17)


    The tragic and preventable (18) death of Mr. Lemmon led to significant vacancy reform in Baltimore, (19) but nearly twelve percent of all rental property in the United States remains vacant. (20) As the history of 900 N. Payson exemplifies, vacancy has a strong foothold in historically underserved portions of the country, with its worst impacts echoing through minority and low-income communities. (21) Following the white flight (22) of suburbanization, urban centers saw a decline in their population and an increase in their vacant property rates. (23) To tackle vacancy problems in their cities, local government officials have to define vacancy before developing solution-oriented initiatives. (24)

    According to advocates with the National Vacant Properties Campaign, a vacant property may exhibit one or both of the following traits: 1) it poses a threat to public safety as a nuisance (25) and 2) the property owner has foregone basic duties of ownership, such as paying taxes or maintaining the property. (26) Local stakeholders and state officials can provide more specific definitions of a vacant property, but generally, a vacant building has been uninhabited for at least a year and has structural damage that threatens the community's well-being. (27) Regardless of the statutory requirement or agreed-upon definition, vacant property creates substantial harm and waste within cities, and this risk is experienced both communally and personally in multiple ways.

    First, local governments spend millions of municipal dollars to board up or otherwise maintain vacant properties. In the early 2000s, St. Louis spent over $15 million demolishing vacant properties, (28) and Philadelphia spent nearly $2 million cleaning and clearing vacant lots. (29) Second, cities miss out on a wealth of property tax while the housing stock remains vacant and tax delinquent. (30) In St. Louis alone, there are over 24,000 vacant parcels that, in total, have an assessed property value worth nearly $80 million. (31) Research in St. Paul, Minnesota, showed that the city loses nearly $8,000 in revenue when it demolishes a home, compared to the nearly $14,000 in property tax the same vacant building could generate in twenty years if rehabilitated. (32)

    Third, vacant properties' abandoned, semi-enclosed structures create ideal venues for criminal activity. (33) A study in Austin, Texas, reported that in neighborhoods with the highest rates of vacancy, 83% of abandoned and semi-enclosed property "showed evidence of illegal use." (34) Additional data from social science research shows that increased foreclosure rates lead to more vacancy and higher crime rates; this argument was demonstrated with a 1% increase in foreclosure leading to 1.5-2.5% increases in crime rates for neighborhoods in large, populous cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. (35) Vacant property can also easily catch fire, through arson or natural causes, which can spread to nearby parcels. (36) An annual report on vacancy fires across the country has determined that each year, around 28,000 vacant buildings go up in flames, causing hundreds of injuries and $900 million in property loss. (37)

    The unrelenting threat of these dangerous vacant structures takes a psychological toll on individual community members, as well. During the St. Louis Vacancy Summit in 2017, twenty-six percent of the present community members stated that they cither experienced a violent crime or feared a violent crime may occur inside a vacant property near their home. (38) Not surprisingly, community growth and stabilization across the country is nearly impossible in census-block neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher vacancy rates. (39) Longtime residents have proudly built their familial generational wealth around their property, and they do not want to lose their wealth (40) due to others' negligence or carelessness. (41) Nonetheless, these same invested residents may have to consider moving to escape the physical and psychological toll of vacant properties. (42) Taken altogether, the financial strain, the wasted tax base, and the criminal magnetism of vacant properties create a hardship for current residents while also deterring future residents.

    Vacant property must be systematically and nationally addressed by partnerships between community members and governmental stakeholders, and the first step should be preventing properties from becoming abandoned and then vacant in the first place. (43) Currently, many state and local regimes have administrative and statutory tools that enable interested third parties to rehabilitate, demolish, or otherwise repurpose vacant property while fewer resources are dedicated to vacancy prevention initiatives. (44) Preventing vacancy deserves as much attention as strategies to abate vacant properties because prevention enables families to retain wealth and avoid a cycle of debt, (45) while abatement and mitigation tactics respond to the physical structure. (46) A solution to vacancy requires a combination of proactive and preventive policy interventions, but currently, there is insufficient emphasis on preventing property from becoming vacant. However, a legislative solution that may prevent property from being abandoned and becoming vacant is being enacted across the country--the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA). (47)

    This Note will proceed with Part III, a discussion of the historical and contemporary causes of vacancy--namely, debt foreclosure costs and intestate succession. (48) Next, Part IV will discuss the policy intervention tools that seek to abate vacant properties (49) and contrast these tools with the UPHPA. (50) Finally, Part V will analyze the UPHPA and suggest revisions to strengthen its impact to prevent families from abandoning heirs property. (51) Policymakers should revise the UPHPA language (52) to simplify the process for consolidating title of current heirs property and invest in more robust estate planning tools to prevent vacancy. (53) Together, this national effort at tactical revision and resource investment will protect familial homes and prevent the next generation of homeowners from having to bear the burden of neighboring vacant property.


    Vacancy is a pernicious, steady decline of property value and community stability that does not happen overnight. Decades ago, conscious governmental planning created the undesirable foundation for the vacancy landscape in today's American cities. A large cultural movement of the United States, the Great Migration of Black families out of the Jim-Crow era southern regions of the country, received a fearful response from white politicians marked by draconian policies that boxed in urban growth in an ineffective manner. (54) The aftershock of these calculated choices harmed the development of communities then, but it also led to ongoing community disinvestment from both residents and government officials today. (55)

    1. Cultural Background: A Great Migration to Unwelcoming Cities

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