A Story of Vacant Land (Part 1): Costs & Benefits

Numbers don’t lie.  Well, if we are being honest, they sometimes do.  As community leaders, advocates, and policy analysts, it’s our job to think critically about data.  In short, numbers mean something, which is why it’s so important to contextualize them. They represent real people associated with real costs.  When analyzing costs and benefits, nothing is more important than humanizing the numbers.

Let’s consider some of the numbers and truths with regards to vacant lot maintenance.  In Allegheny County, 67.3% of people living in residences are affected by vacant land.  That means their property values, mental health, and general well-being have more than likely been impacted.  These communities tend to be neighborhoods where both the private real estate market and government policies have failed them.  For example, the government sought to end housing discrimination in the late 1960s with the Fair Housing Act. Yet this still led to deceitful blockbusting practices; a real-estate tactic that has led to the stark segregation you see in Pittsburgh today.  As vacancy increased in Pittsburgh (how this happened will be addressed in Part 2), proximity to that vacancy fell along racial divides.

Vacant lot greening effort in Philadelphia, PA.  Source: “The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy and Hypervacancy in the United States.” The Lincoln Institute.

The statistics are easy to see; more than 2 in 3 people live in such communities.  These communities are likely affected by depressed property values and suffer the consequences of racial and socioeconomic inequity.  These are staggering indirect costs and they all feed off one another. This goes to show why this issue, which is inherently economic, should be Pittsburgh’s #1 priority.  Yet, positive economic outcomes are not the extent of these benefits; there are also health, environmental, and social gains.

What about another figure: 33% of vacant lots are tax delinquent.  For every 3 vacant lots you see, 1 isn’t generating tax revenue for the city.  That’s an abstract thing to think about. However, if we think about it in more personal terms, the idea becomes clearer.  Consider working for 3 hours and then only getting paid for 2, even though your colleagues saw you working and you entered your hours on your timecard. Still, you didn’t get paid simply because your supervisor wasn’t there to see you actually do the work.  Certainly not an exact metaphor … but you get the idea.  On two levels costs are piling up.  There are the unseen costs of depressed property values, inequity, and negative impacts on mental health on top of lost revenues and increased costs to public services.


Admittedly, that’s a lot of negatives.  But there are positives, more than there are negatives actually, and it’s fascinating how they behave.  Since all the costs compound, you can probably imagine the benefits behave similarly. This is the idea of co-benefits.  In our case, the benefits of proactive vacant lot maintenance vastly outweigh the costs. Those costs mentioned earlier can be reversed while also improving community engagement, stimulating the local economy, and developing the local workforce.  It should not be ignored that these are primarily issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity of immense scope and scale. Only at the local level are they made visible. The solutions required won’t be cure-alls and they won’t happen overnight. But by better understanding the nature of costs and benefits, we can begin to design solutions that create incremental change and move the needle further towards the benefits.    


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