If density is on balance a good thing, then vacant properties are most likely not such a very good thing. Vacant properties are usually poorly maintained, unsecured, ugly, and dangerous. They may become neighborhood eyesores, fire hazards, havens for crime, or homes for squatters. And the longer a property remains vacant, the more costly it becomes to remediate it and the less likely it becomes that it will be redeployed to a productive use.

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There is no easy way to address vacant properties. Cities have used redevelopment incentives, eminent domain, public-private partnerships, and even receivership structures to get vacant properties back into productive use. These approaches are expensive, often unwieldy, and almost always demanding to administer.

In the past decade, cities began enacting vacant property registration ordinances (“VPROs”) to address vacant properties. A VPRO requires the owner of a vacant property to register it with the city and to identify the party responsible for its maintenance. The purported purposes of a VPRO are to generate data on the location and extent of vacant properties within a city, to identify the parties responsible for such properties, and to generate funds through registration fees for investigation and enforcement actions.

More bluntly – one of the most challenging issues with vacancy is that there is little economic incentive for an owner to dispose or redeploy a chronically vacant property. As the property falls into disrepair, in most jurisdictions the tax bill will shrink along with the assessed value. The cruel truth is that, at least insofar as the tax burden is concerned, the conscientious property owner is penalized for keeping his home in better repair than the vacant property next door. Some VPROs therefore impose escalating registration fees that increase the costs of vacant property ownership over time, creating an incentive to actually do something with the property.

The question is, do VPROs work? The attached paper explores the question. In short, cities that have adopted VPROs think that they work. Take a look.

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