The Rise of Vacancy - Part VII Clarksburg (by Matt Stroud)

In Clarksburg, W. Va., there is a landfill where nothing but the remains of abandoned houses are buried. Nearby rests the Department of Public Works heavy equipment that put them there as part of an aggressive demolition program to control blight that had accumulated during a half-century of industrial decline.

Over the past decade, the program demolished buildings and cleared land on nearly 300 vacant properties trying to reduce blight, increase housing values and advance the city’s post-industrial recovery. And between 2000 and 2010, housing values rose 25 percent.

A once-booming center for glass and coal production, Clarksburg and its population grew by nearly 700 percent between 1900 and 1950, from 4,050 to 32,014 residents.  Hazel-Atlas Glass was one of numerous companies that employed thousands of workers who traveled to North Central West Virginia with their families to find work in manufacturing facilities. The manufacturing floor of Hazel-Atlas alone took up a full 15 acres.

But after 1950, those manufacturing facilities slowly began to decline. People lost their jobs, and Clarksburg’s population fell. Today, some 16,550 people live Clarksburg, about half as many who lived in the city during its peak years.

The result was widespread vacancy and the risks that often come with it. After sitting vacant for 20 years, the Hazel-Atlas plant burned to the ground in 2007, the last embers smoldering for five days before firefighters could extinguish them.

“When we demolish buildings, that’s exactly what we’re hoping to avoid,” said Adam Barberio, Clarksburg’s code enforcement supervisor.

The problem of vacant buildings in Clarksburg has been high on city government’s priority list for longer than a decade. Council members there have chosen a simple strategy to contend with problems related to blight: prioritize, demolish and clear away.

But addressing vacant and abandoned properties was not always a government priority, said Jim Hunt, former mayor and current Clarksburg councilman who has been instrumental in the city’s vacant properties demolition program.

“With city budgets, you almost never gain any traction with big demolition projects,” he says. “Everyone talks about it and everyone knows that vacant properties are a problem, but there’s no continuing reward when you tear a building down, so it’s tough to get council to support it.”

So he came up with a plan.

In addition to his duties as councilman in Clarksburg, Hunt managed the Clarksburg Field Office of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. That fund was established to increase West Virginia’s supply of low- and moderate-income housing. Hunt argued that the fund should also be used to prevent blighted properties from diminishing the value of low-income housing. And the fund made low-interest loans available to municipalities to help cover the cost of demolishing vacant houses that were blighting their streets.

“It was a leap of faith, but the thinking was that if cities would have these vacant lots, adjoining houses would rise in value, there would be room for new housing and these places would rebuild and revitalize,” he said.

Four cities took advantage of the Housing Development’s demolition loan – Shinnston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Salem, W. Va.

Clarksburg officials identified more than 300 homes – all of which had been unoccupied for at least three years – that seemed ripe for demolition based on complaints from neighbors, observation and other information. Houses were chosen after it was decided that large buildings, such as the Hazel-Atlas plant, were too big and expensive to demolish first. 

They rated each house using criteria such as the value of the lot, whether the house was ready to fall down, whether it attracted crime, contained asbestos or other hazards, or had historical value.

Owners were identified and letters were sent asking if they had plans for the house, offering low interest loans and warning they would be fined if they failed to upgrade their property. Fifteen homeowners responded and were offered low-cost demolition and payment plans. The city charged about half of the $30,000 it typically cost to tear down a house.

At first, about 10 houses were demolished a year. Eventually, the program would raze more than 100 a year.

“Destruction isn’t our goal, but you’ve got to realize that in the private sector no one’s going to do anything about these buildings unless there’s money to be made,” Hunt said. “So what the city’s stuck with are all the remainders – houses that are almost valueless that can’t be feasibly fixed up or sold.”

By the end of the decade, the demolition project helped reduce the number of vacant houses in the city to 919 and lower vacancy rates from 14 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2010.

And between 2000 and 2010, the average sale price of a house in Clarksburg rose 25 percent – from $72,249 to $90,454 – despite the fact that the city spent the last several years in lingering recession like the rest of the nation.

How big of a role the demolition program had in raising housing values cannot be precisely determined. But from the city’s perspective, it was a citywide cleanup program that paid off. “These vacant properties can be dangerous and bring the prices of other homes down,” said Adam Barberio, Clarksburg code enforcement supervisor. So getting rid of them is like an investment into the future.”

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