VACANT LOT is a contagious place. Signs of its disorder — graffiti, car parts, trash ditched in the overgrown weeds — have a way of spreading. This is how it happens: First, the one lot drags down neighboring property values, discouraging people who live there from investing in their own homes, deterring banks that could lend them money, and unnerving buyers who might move in. Then the behavior that blight provokes multiplies, too: People who see litter, for instance, are more likely to litter themselves. Finally, blighted lots become good places to stash weapons and sell drugs, and the crime that follows depresses the block even more until what’s the point of picking up the trash when you can just move out, too?
And so these places multiply — “there’s one, and then there’s another, and then there are two more, and then there’s another,” says Glenda D. Price, the president of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation and a co-chair of the city’s blight removal task force. “It just seems to creep.”
Cities from Detroit to Philadelphia, though, are increasingly finding novel techniques to fight back. Detroit deployed more than 150 residents, survey software in hand, to document the most extensive census of vacant landthat has ever been conducted in a U.S. city. Now the land bank in Detroit is trying to strategically auction abandoned homes worth salvaging, as the city prioritizes neighborhoods with the best chance of recovery.