Zombie Neigborhoods: Searching for a Cure

Many of America’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt communities have experienced rising vacancy and abandoned homes or properties beyond just one or two, sprinkled throughout the urban landscape, but recently in terms of entire neighborhoods. The effects of urban decline on these cities has brought new urgency to practitioners and researchers alike.

Although anthropomorphism and dramatic terminology has the potential to distract, skew and unintentionally manipulate community discourse, the term “zombie neighborhoods” appears to be adhering to the urban vernacular.  Zombie neighborhoods get their name for their apparent stagnant and functionless state, which is due to chronic vacancy, abandonment and underlying social and economic reasons.

In the recent Atlantic Cities article, “In Search of a Cure for Zombie Neighborhoods“, a new study from Mark Silverman, Li Yin and Kelly L. Patterson out of the University of Buffalo is reviewed.  Using Buffalo as their case study, the study takes a closer look distinguishes characteristics of zombie properties, uses an exploratory analysis to examine demographic ad institutional dimensions of vacant property phenomenon,with a goal towards generating a framework for analysis – tailored for cities impacted by chronic abandonment and decline.”

By examining “HUD Aggregate USPS Administrative Data on address vacancies, the  American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates for 2005-2009, housing choice voucher records of local public housing agencies and municipal property records” they chart the socioeconomic geography of vacancy, as well as spatial distribution of institutions or  “new urban regimes.” Along with the spatial analysis, a linear regression is included to further understand “socioeconomic factors and characteristics of the institutions and built environment”.

The study’s analysis contained several findings that are too numerous to cover in their entirety here, and apparently to numerous for the Atlantic to accurately convey without stoking the preservation versus demolition debate.  Study highlights include:

  • that high concentrations of vacancy correspond with concentrations of poverty, subsidized housing, minority groups and other indicators of distress;
  • that new urban regimes represent a re-centering of the urban landscape and a buffer zone, between properties/areas that are still viable and those that have been systematically abandoned;
  • that higher rates of residential vacancy are found in census tracts with poor residents, concentrations of minorities, older housing, long term vacant properties, less expensive housing, government subsidized housing and a mixture of commercial and residential land uses (*mixture of factors differed depending which of 3 models/data was used).

The authors do not conclude that shrinking, or neighborhood demolition of so called zombie neighborhoods is the appropriate policy solution. Although they do indicate they fell the evidence and current literature to date, including right-sizing research from Europe/Eastern Europe, may be more appropriate to terminate the spread of necrosis to viable areas of the city.

The study suggests that many of these areas should be demolished and zombie properties removed to stop the spread of necrosis to viable areas of the city. And while it suggest this is so because the underlying assumption is that “they are not candidates for urban vitalization or regeneration”, the study also concludes that good information and data is missing on the understanding of the “pace and scope of demolishings” and “how abandoned property is adapted to the urban landscape”.

Ultimately, it’s a call for more research (i.e. more information, better data, elevated understanding) of how these and other policies will affect the built environment of shrinking cities and quality of life of residents, by addressing vacancy and abandonment.

Dawn of the Dead City: An Exploratory Analysis of Vacant Addresses in Buffalo, NY 2008-2010