Symposium seeks to beat back ‘zombies,’ grow sustainable housing

It sounds like a scene from a scary Halloween movie: Neighborhoods are plagued by abandoned, dangerously dilapidated houses that threaten safety, attract crime and sap community spirit.

In fact, so-called “zombie homes” – often left vacant and unmaintained during prolonged foreclosure proceedings – are a serious problem that drew experts from academia, government and nonprofit organizations to Cornell Oct. 23-24 for a symposium focused on revitalizing afflicted communities across New York state.

Cornell impacting New York State

“More than a decade after the collapse of the housing market, New Yorkers are still feeling and seeing the repercussions each and every day,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a videotaped message opening the sixth annual Community Development Institute. “We know that these abandoned homes dramatically decrease property values, burden local governments and threaten the safety of surrounding communities.”

Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute (CaRDI) hosted the program, “From Zombies and Vacants to Sustainable Housing: Building Resilient Communities.” Partners included the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Rust2Green and Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives. More than 125 participants discussed sustainable housing, community health and success stories, seeking opportunities for new partnerships.

“We bring together diverse perspectives on community development issues,” said Robin Blakely-Armitage, senior extension associate at CaRDI. “We blend research, policy and practice.”

James highlighted $9 million in recent grants to combat zombie homes through tougher code enforcement. The grants came from a $500 million state settlement last year with Royal Bank of Scotland related to the foreclosure crisis.

Zombie homes served as a launching point for broader discussions about affordable housing and strategies for reviving neighborhoods with high concentrations of vacant and abandoned homes, challenges that have deep historical and demographic roots, panelists noted.

Upstate New York’s cities and rural counties have been losing population for decades, said Daniel Lichter, a demographer, professor of sociology and the Ferris Family Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Policy Analysis and Management.

The region suffers from chronic “outmigration,” with more people leaving than moving in, and deaths outnumbering births in some rural areas. Immigration holds some hope of restoring lost population, but has been concentrated in New York City.

“New York faces historically difficult demographic challenges now and into the future,” Lichter said.

As mostly white people left cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica for the suburbs or other states starting in the 1950s, “they didn’t take their houses with them,” added Wade Beltramo, general counsel for the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials.

Beltramo highlighted laws and programs attempting to address vacant and abandoned homes, including land banks and the “zombie law.” But he said New York needs stronger financing tools, and local governments’ competing tax policies, land-use regulations and school residency requirements have exacerbated demographic trends.

“We’ve encouraged sprawl; we’ve encouraged this outmigration,” Beltramo said.

Envisioning equitable future land use starts with understanding the “harsh reality” that racist views and policies guided cities’ early development, from acts of violence to federally subsidized mortgage programs that excluded African Americans, said Aaron Bartley, former executive director of PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) Buffalo, an affordable housing and community development organization.

Buffalo and similar cities have attracted new investment over the last decade or so, but it has been very uneven, Bartley said, creating new challenges. Pockets of luxury housing are popping up while large areas continue to deteriorate, he said.

“We are very uniquely situated to anticipate that crisis in our cities, because we see it beginning,” Bartley said.

Mehrsa Baradaran, author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap,” expanded on the history of structural and spatial inequalities in a conversation with Jamila Michener, associate professor of government, and Joe Margulies, professor of law and government.

Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said myths and rhetoric about free-market capitalism have been used to thwart civil rights groups’ demands for economic justice.

“Economic power, wealth, actually comes most of the time from policies,” she said. “The way that the middle class in America gained its wealth … was through government credit policy.”

To achieve change, Michener – author of “Gentrification, Demobilization and Participatory Possibilities” – suggested: “If we can have a small policy victory, or local political victory, then that can build on itself.”

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