The neighborhood as commons: reframing neighborhood decline.

Author:Oakerson, Ronald J.
Position::Special Issue on Affordable Housing


Neighborhood decline and the resulting erosion of the urban housing stock in the U.S. are typically viewed as products of forces beyond the control of cities. Yet if urban neighborhoods have the characteristics of a commons, homeowners and landlords may adopt strategic behaviors that lead to a cycle of disinvestment in the housing stock, followed by abandonment. Low-income neighborhoods may be especially vulnerable to this dynamic. If decline is a tragedy of the commons, it is potentially avertible by neighborhood collective action. Using principles drawn from research on common-pool resources, we develop a mode of analysis applicable to the neighborhood commons and apply it to an illustrative case on Buffalo's West Side. Because collective action among neighbors is largely tacit, not based on explicit agreements, it tends to be driven by individual perceptions. The analysis suggests ways to reverse the disinvestment cycle by facilitating collective action: fostering a shared sense of neighborhood responsibility among residents; strategically using neighborhood improvements to alter perceptions and thereby leverage reinvestment in the housing stock; and securing effective neighborhood access to legitimate means of coercion for the enforcement of housing rules.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction 412 I. Succession and Decline: Previous Research 415 II. Is the Neighborhood a Commons? 417 III. An Illustrative Case on Buffalo's West Side 423 IV. Governing the Neighborhood Commons 430 A. Principle 1: Clear Boundaries 431 B. Principle 2: Proportional Sharing of Benefits and Costs 432 C. Principles 3 and 4: Rule Making and Monitoring 432 D. Principle 5: Available Sanctions 433 E. Principle 6: Conflict Resolution 433 F. Principle 7: External Recognition 434 G. Principle 8: Nested Organization 434 V. Facilitating Collective Action 435 A. Obstacles to Neighborhood Responsibility 437 1. Incentives 437 2. Isolation 437 3. Boundaries of Responsibility 438 4. The Law of Trespass 439 5. A Punitive Sense of Justice 440 B. Leveraging Investment 441 C. Obtaining Enforcement 442 Conclusion 448 INTRODUCTION

Neighborhood decline is a long-standing, perplexing problem in urban America, (1) resulting in an ongoing deterioration of the housing stock, much of it abandoned and eventually demolished. (2) Despite promising indications of urban revival at the turn of the century, (3) the erosion of the housing stock has continued at an alarming rate. Brookings reports that vacant housing increased by 4.5 million units, or forty-four percent, from 2000 to 2010, with vacancies concentrated in older, industrial cities: "[b]oarded houses, abandoned factories and apartment buildings, and vacant storefronts are a common part of the landscape in large cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, and a host of smaller cities." (4)

Explanations of neighborhood decline have focused largely on factors beyond the control of cities: an aging housing stock, suburbanization, and poverty. (5) The standard model of neighborhood decline is based on income succession: as neighborhoods age, lower-income residents succeed higher-income residents who depart for newer housing elsewhere, leaving behind a housing stock increasingly costly to maintain. (6) Whether as renters or homeowners, a succession of lower-income residents is less and less able to generate income sufficient to maintain the housing stock. (7) In the extreme case, the supply of high-end suburban housing can increase to the point that demand for housing in some urban neighborhoods is reduced to zero, leaving sections of the city worthless and abandoned. (8) Demolition is eventually followed by redevelopment, and the cycle begins again. (9) The root cause of decline for many analysts is poverty. (10) Given a housing market that responds to the demands of affluent residents, the only way to slow neighborhood decline in the succession model is to reduce the number and impact of low-income residents--those who can't afford to maintain an aging housing stock.

Suppose, however, that neighborhoods are not simply collections of aging houses but a distinct sort of commons, sharing the critical attributes of common-pool resources." If so, neighborhoods are potentially exposed to decline from within, based on an internally-driven, self-reinforcing dynamic of disinvestment that leads to abandonment. Just as the "tragedy of the commons" works its way to an inevitable end no one wants, (12) the neighborhood commons exhibits a remorseless decline ending in abandonment and demolition. Although the biologist-cum-social philosopher Garrett Hardin famously equated the commons with tragedy, (13) subsequent research by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues has shown that tragic outcomes can be averted through the collective action of commons users. (14) If neighborhoods exhibit a tragedy of the commons, it stems not from the nature of the commons but from an inability on the part of residents to act collectively.

How a problem is framed has a direct bearing on how it is addressed. Framing neighborhood decline as a process of "succession," urban policymakers may choose to watch the inevitable unfold and wait for opportunities to rebuild and redevelop. Housing policy continues to focus on new construction even though, as Kushner and colleagues argue, "one must not lose sight of the need to retain existing stock if housing production is ultimately to meet the demand for housing." (15) Framed as a commons dynamic, neighborhood decline is no longer understood as an unrelenting process that leads to the wrecking ball but, rather, as a contingent problem subject to internal dynamics as well as external stresses, potentially responsive to neighborhood collective action--provided that neighbors are able to act collectively. It may even be possible for low-income neighborhoods to "remain stable and pleasant" places to live without having "to make everyone middle-class." (16)

In Part I we review a body of research that critically examined the succession model and found it wanting empirically--unable to explain neighborhood decline. In Part II we develop the concept of the neighborhood commons as an alternative way of framing the process of decline. We illustrate the application of the commons framework to urban neighborhoods in Part III, describing in detail a case of neighborhood decline and turnaround on Buffalo's West Side. In Part IV, we draw on the principles of commons governance developed by Elinor Ostrom, (17) a political scientist and Nobel Laureate in economics, to analyze and explain the case. We generalize and elaborate our argument in Part V, exploring key aspects of the neighborhood commons to suggest strategic interventions for facilitating neighborhood collective action to forestall urban decline.


    We begin by examining the empirical validity of the succession model. To do so, we distinguish between "succession," which refers to the sequence of income groups, and "neighborhood decline," which is predicted to follow on succession as average household income in the neighborhood decreases. Although neighborhood decline is clearly multidimensional, including both objective and subjective conditions, the succession model focuses on the condition of housing as the crucial dependent variable. (18) The key question is--how and under what circumstance does neighborhood income succession produce unfettered housing deterioration?

    Economist William Grigsby and colleagues rejected some oft-cited answers to this question. (19) The succession model assumes that the maintenance requirements of housing increase with age. Not so, they argued: homes, unlike automobiles, can be "maintained almost indefinitely." (20) Because housing components deteriorate at different rates, each one can be repaired or replaced as needed, so that annual costs rarely exceed a small fraction of original construction costs. Evidence further suggested that decline does not inevitability follow succession. Decline can precede succession and succession can occur without decline ensuing. (21) The authors offered two possible explanations: behavioral factors ("poor housekeeping, theft, vandalism, and assaults") and externalities. (22) The behavioral category is a mixed bag of variables with various possible sources--some based on the attributes of individual residents, others based on the activities of neighbors, and still others originating from outside the neighborhood. The externality argument is more focused, based on a recognition that the market value of a dwelling is affected not only by its own level of upkeep but also by the upkeep of surrounding structures, so that "property owners in deteriorating neighborhoods are not apt, unilaterally, to make repairs that would be economic only if other owners took steps to improve their structures as well." (23)

    Economist George Galster conducted an elaborate cross-sectional study (24) of the relationship between individual homeowner reinvestment decisions and aggregate neighborhood reinvestment in two cities--Wooster, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. (25) He found no evidence that lower household income resulted in a greater incidence of exterior home defects, controlling for other factors. (26) But he found clear evidence that a decline in neighborhood quality (27) strongly tends to discourage homeowners from exterior maintenance. (28) Furthermore, pessimism about the future of the neighborhood was associated with a reduction in annual expenditures on upkeep and an increase in exterior housing defects, especially in low-quality neighborhoods. (29) In particular, existing residents with relatively higher incomes are apt to reduce upkeep as lower-income residents enter, so that decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (30) Yet, he found that individual homeowners were motivated to invest "significant sums" in housing upkeep if both the homeowner and neighbors exhibited...

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