What to Do About a Local Abandoned House

What if there's no actual neighbor in the derelict house in your area? Tools to fight blight.

By , Attorney (Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law)

Many neighborhoods have abandoned homes, especially in suburban or rural communities. These houses are problematic in several ways. First, an empty house lowers the overall tax base—it represents uncollected potential government income that could improve the school system, the police department, and the roads. This diminishes the value of the neighborhood and the services the government can provide.

But second, an abandoned home brings an aesthetic cost. Without an owner to care for it, the windows break, the paint chips away, and the garden becomes overgrown. Animals or squatters might find their way inside. The property begins to look, in a word, creepy. Neighbors might find their own properties are tougher to sell. And because ownership is unclear and the property might have back-taxes or liens associated with it, the home is unlikely to sell on its own. If you live near an abandoned home, what can you do?

Check Your Local Government Website

Abandoned homes are not a new problem in America, but national events of the past decade have certainly resulted in an increased number of them. These events include natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, as well as man-made disasters, like mortgage crises and recessions.

Some states have created elaborate guides to help homeowners and community associations address the issue on a grassroots level. The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, for example, published a helpful guide called "From Blight to Bright," outlining the problems caused by abandoned homes along with practical approaches communities can take to address them. Detroit, which saw tremendous numbers of abandoned properties with the slowdown of the auto industry, has actually assembled a task force around the issue. New Orleans, which of course suffered after Hurricane Katrina, has a similar mechanism.

Your first step when investigating an abandoned home in your area is simple. Search your city or county website to see whether your government provides any resources similar to those described above. Perhaps there is a standing task force in place, or a particular person within the housing department charged with collecting notices of potentially abandoned properties. You would likely assist this person or department in filling out a form, which would be investigated by the local government (performing a last-owner search and a search for back taxes owing).

Organize Your Community to Fight Blight

If your local government does not have a clear means for you to report the issue, you might have to become more proactive. The presence of an abandoned home represents a good opportunity for your community to come together. If you have a neighborhood association, there is a natural mechanism for this. If you don't, perhaps you can take on a leadership role yourself.

Write a letter to your local council or your neighbors about the home. See if anyone knows the location of the owner and, if not, whether there might be some momentum around the idea of addressing the problem. Abandoned properties are eyesores, but often ignored. Start making some noise around the problem, and see whether any neighbors or elected officials are interested in listening.

Legal Proceedings Regarding Abandoned Properties

The ultimate legal step in dealing with an abandoned property is getting it officially "condemned" by the state or local government. This involves an extensive legal process, including multiple notices to the last owner of record giving that person a chance to return to the jurisdiction, pay back taxes, and make necessary repairs.

If no owner surfaces, the government could take control of the property by using its right of eminent domain. It might keep the property public (such as by knocking down the house and turning the land into a public park) or it might sell the property to a private buyer, using the revenue to support other government functions.

You and your neighbors should actively consider whether some sort of public facility would be helpful in this particular location—a park, a tennis court, a swimming pool, or perhaps a parking area. Make your feelings on this matter known to your local representatives as they push the legal proceedings forward. An abandoned home represents a challenge for a community, but also an important opportunity for revenue and revitalization.

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