Henrico’s Housing Whack-a-Mole

Delmont Street property to be demolished

Henrico County, following the priorities of its new Democratic Party majority on the Board of Supervisors, has created a $2 million fund to head off neighborhood blight by financing renovations and redevelopment of the county’s aging housing stock, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As an example of what the fund can do, county officials pointed to a boarded-up property on Delmont Street near the Richmond Raceway that has been the site of nine fights, 26 firearm violations, and 13 vice incidents over the past five years. Three murders have happened nearby. County administrators will ask the board Tuesday to buy the property for $50,000 and demolish it.

Let us concede up front that such a development surely will be welcome to law-abiding residents of the neighborhood. In my younger days I lived in a neighborhood with dilapidated crack houses on the block where murders occurred, and I welcomed any action by Richmond city authorities to clean them up. I can sympathize with the Delmont Street neighbors.

But let us not delude ourselves that we’re doing anything more than playing whack-a-mole. Henrico can demolish the building on Delmont Street, but that does nothing to reform the behavior of the derelicts who caused the problems in the first place. The drug addicts, prostitutes, and criminals who turned the building into a hell-hole will just move to another location — perhaps an abandoned building, or if none is readily available, into a neglected property charging the cheapest rent.

At heart is the question: Do run-down buildings create poverty and the anti-social behaviors associated with poverty, or do people displaying anti-social behaviors gravitate toward run-down buildings and hasten their ruin?

The conventional wisdom among the professional caring class suggests that improving the housing stock will not only ameliorate the material conditions of poverty but address poverty directly. But that ignores why housing conditions deteriorate in the first place. Broadly speaking, the housing stock degrades for two reasons. First, because poor property owners lack the financial resources to keep up with the maintenance. Second, because certain classes of tenants, especially those inclined toward criminality, subject their houses to greater abuse.

Unless public policy addresses those realities (1) by fostering higher employment rates, incomes and spending power for poor people, and (2) by discouraging criminal and anti-social behavior, spending public funds to combat blight is as futile as a dog expecting to catch its own tail. This should be obvious by now. As a society, we have spent untold billions of public and charitable dollars combating urban blight by tearing down or renovating run-down buildings, and we have been doing this for decades. Yet the blight never disappears. It just moves from one location to another.

This is an iron law of economics: As long as poor people and the criminally inclined are with us, they will gravitate to the lowest-cost neighborhoods because that’s all they can afford. When they take over a neighborhood, the criminally inclined will run the buildings into the ground, those with financial means will flee, and the law-abiding but poor will lack the resources or incentive to maintain their properties.

Sadly for Henrico, it is on the receiving end of this migration pattern. Older neighborhoods in Richmond, being closer to the vibrant city center and benefiting from walkable streets, are being gentrified. Poor people are being displaced. And they’re moving to the old, non-walkable subdivisions of cheap, ugly, 50s- and 60s-era ranches where nobody else wants to live, mainly in Henrico and Chesterfield.

Henrico will need a lot more than a $2 million fund to cope with that reality.

Meanwhile, if we want to truly do something to improve the quality of the housing stock, we should stop throwing away money on futile efforts to eliminate blight and start investing in programs that address incomes and criminality.

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6 responses to “Henrico’s Housing Whack-a-Mole

  1. Jim, you pose the problem thus: “Do run-down buildings create poverty and the anti-social behaviors associated with poverty, or do people displaying anti-social behaviors gravitate toward run-down buildings and hasten their ruin?” Then, you choose Option 2, it’s the people not the buildings.

    But that “iron law of economics” you cite deals with neighborhoods. I think it’s correct — but the fallacy we’ve seen demonstrated so often, such as in Alexandria, is the notion that if you bulldoze the slums and replace them with a “project” you will somehow break the cycle of poverty that caused the slums. And on the other hand, if you bulldoze a low income neighborhood that still functions with vitality, like the pre-70s Jackson Ward in Richmond, you will simply relocate, even augment, that vitality in the “new” projects built to house those displaced.

    I think the key is not houses but neighborhoods. A neighborhood is a fabric that can hold itself together despite only a few tears and holes. It needs to be nurtured with all those things the gentrifiers bring, the absence of which are so lamented (or even demanded) by those who lack them: neighborhood groceries, parks and trees, an occasional restaurant, clean sidewalks, fixed-up front yards, eventually even good schools — which you summarize as “walkable streets.” These thrive where there’s a sense of neighborhood safety and neighborhood patrons (not just tourists) with cash to spend, and some leadership to keep it that way.

    You conclude, “start investing in programs that address incomes and criminality.” I don’t disagree, that would help, but the emphasis should be on building neighborhoods not fixing houses, or individuals.

    Sure, the problem get’s pushed elsewhere if “gentrification” takes off. Let me ask, is that old neighborhood of yours with the crack-house down the street thriving today? Did the government get rid of the problem tenants, or simply the market forces of gentrification? What the heck is “gentrification” anyway but a name for the creation of a neighborhood (in a place where there wasn’t any sense of community or it had been lost), and the pushing out of those who get in the way and don’t want to (or can’t) pay to stay?

    We’re seeing a lot of this across DC and NoVa, for example, in south Arlington and Hybla Valley and south Falls Church and even Reston. And yes, the people at the bottom who get displaced have nowhere to go but someplace as bad or worse, like Seat Pleasant or north-central Baltimore. This is what market forces do. There will always be people at the bottom and they will get displaced. I don’t see how you can fix a neighborhood by throwing money at people who simply don’t believe in the concept of neighborhood and won’t or can’t support it, even if you manage to help them individually.

    • Acbar, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree, the concepts of “neighborhood” and “community” need to be incorporated into our thinking.

      Let’s play this out: Let’s say government interventions are geared to bolstering neighborhoods and communities. What happens? Those neighborhoods become more desirable places to live. That increases demand to live there, which drives prices up. Which makes the neighborhood unaffordable for the poor. Inevitably, the poor leave to less desirable neighborhoods where they can afford to pay the rent.

      I don’t see any way around the dilemma as I explained it. Like you say, “There will always be people at the bottom and they will get displaced.”

      Bottom line: Any successful government intervention to improve the quality of housing and the community will make those places more desirable, drive up prices, and eventually push out the poor. Is this an effective anti-poverty program?

      • P.S. The neighborhood I lived in gentrified, yuppies purchased all the houses and renovated them, and no more poor people live on that block.

      • The (obvious) problem with focusing solely on neighborhood-building is the displacement of people who no longer fit in. We can talk about problems of racial displacement, which gets a lot of attention in DC, or ethnic displacement, say in Arlington, but in the big picture it becomes competition among jurisdictions not to host the “bottom” housing that attracts the lowest income folks but send these people on to . . . anywhere else, to be somebody else’s problem. It’s not just to save the cost of the safety net; it’s also conscious neighborhood preservation. Certainly Montgomery Co. MD was accused of pursuing that as unstated County policy for decades.

        That breeds a reverse problem: if gentrification gets past its tipping point and takes off, does local government have an opportunity — even obligation? — to intervene with policies and subsidies that allow carry-over members of the former population to remain? Sure, that engenders diversity, usually of the “best” sort since those who remain from the “old days” are likely to be owners or have qualified for subsidized rentals. But when they leave their peers can’t buy in at market prices so the diversity will tend to fade away albeit more slowly.

        Where will people that no jurisdiction wants eventually drift to? It used to be the abandoned inner city areas across America. But with them making a comeback through “walkability” and other gentrification assets, it seems to be concentrating the worst of the worst into the less-desirable pieces of that 1950s ring of inner suburbs around most older cities. Look at those little towns surrounding St. Louis, one of which is Ferguson. Ironically many of these are independent townlets originally created to preserve racial and ethnic purity back when they were built; nowadays their tax bases are zilch. Do they exist in Virginia? I won’t name names.

        So Richmond is displacing into Henrico. Henrico has the financial resources to attack its own decline and even rebuild and gentrify neighborhood by neighborhood with big bucks, if it has the political will; but where will all those displaced people go? Caroline? Louisa? Petersburg? Newport News? That’s a county-level form of Wac-A-Mole that only ends at the State line.

  2. A complicated issue and there is no single bullet solution, but certainly for this particular property it might makes sense for the locality to just buy and raze it. With that history I would think it possible to seize it from an absentee owner, but it might be cheaper (and certainly easier) just to buy it and then see if somebody else will build something useful on the location. That house does not seem a candidate for renovation.

    For too long the government was doing all it could to get low income people into projects or into some other form of subsidized housing, and paying too little attention to how to create incentives for clean and well-maintained affordable housing developed with private dollars. Zoning, tax policy, regulatory burdens unrelated to health and safety – all might be contributing to the shortage of low-income housing and all might need to be tweaked.

    And while plenty of folks are rightly concerned about the burden eviction places on the displaced tenant, if you want people to invest in rental property and maintain it, they need redress when the tenant doesn’t pay. If this were easy it would be fixed by now.

  3. re: ” Any successful government intervention to improve the quality of housing and the community will make those places more desirable, drive up prices, and eventually push out the poor. Is this an effective anti-poverty program?”

    I don’t think being on the lower rungs of income should inevitably mean living in a bad neighborhood.

    Other industrialized countries – like Canada – seem to have a diversity of housing stock for all income levels without then ending up the way ours seem to.

    And we did not mention the absolute worst part of this – the schools – which pretty much pre-ordain more poverty…

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