Panel Paper: Trajectories of Neighborhood Vacancy and Residential Perceptions

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8222 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lydia Wileden, Jeffrey Morenoff and Elisabeth Gerber, University of Michigan

Since its peak at 1.8 million in 1950, Detroit’s population has been on a steep decline. Despite efforts by recent mayoral administrations to tout – and catalyze – Detroit's rebirth and expected population growth, the latest Census estimates show the continued exodus of residents from the city, albeit at a slower rate (US Census 2017). In the wake of this decline, Detroit’s 139 square miles have become home to an estimated 78,506 vacant houses and nearly 20 square miles of city-owned vacant land (Detroit Blight Removal 2014; City of Detroit 2013; Detroit Strategic Framework 2012).

Vacant property is one the most visible signs of urban decline, marring the reputations and landscapes of neighborhoods and business corridors. Abandoned property, however, is most often viewed by researchers and policymakers as a symptom of urban disinvestment rather than a cause (Burchell and Listokin, 1981). While some note that vacant properties impose social and fiscal externalities on their neighborhoods, few have focused on and documented the ways in which vacancy shapes residential perceptions of and attachment to place, putting into motion feedback mechanisms of despair and disrepair that perpetuate urban decline (Accordino and Johnson 2000). Further, though federal funds were made available to acquire, rehabilitate, demolish, and redevelop foreclosed and abandoned properties following the foreclosure crisis, few have studied how this investment of funds into neighborhoods shift residents’ perspectives or if the tearing down of blighted properties actually incentivizes residential retention. In Detroit, it is unclear what effect the more than $100 million dedicated to demolition has had on those who live in emptied out neighborhoods.

This paper examines the effects of vacancy and demolition on individuals’ neighborhood perceptions and attachment. First, using a longitudinal data set that captures changes in vacancy over time, we explore how abandonment evolved across Detroit over a 10-year period. Connecting this data with newly gathered data from the Detroit Metropolitan Area Community Survey – a representative, mixed-mode survey of approximately 700 Detroit residents – we test how trajectories of and changes in vacancy influence respondents’ residential satisfaction, perceptions of safety, and desire to move. Finally, we develop a model that examines the effects of demolition activity on respondent neighborhood satisfaction. Leveraging the scale of Detroit’s abandonment to test hypotheses and evaluate policies difficult to assess in more densely populated areas, this research seeks to inform neighborhood stabilization strategies and develop important insights into the role of vacancy and demolition in the feedback loop of urban decline.