Demolition by neglect is when old buildings are destroyed not by the wrecking ball, but by time and neglect from owners who either don’t care about their condition or wish to raze a protected historic structure but can’t get permission to do so. Too often historic homes are in local historic districts that don’t allow demolition except under extreme cases, so they are simply left to rot and fall into such disrepair that they cannot feasibly be repaired.
If you’re patient (and devious) you can usually get permission to tear down any historic landmark simply by sitting on it and watching it fall to pieces. It happens in every city and is an all too common occurrence that historic preservationists seem to be helpless to fight. It’s as cowardly as ignoring your girlfriend until she breaks up with you rather breaking up with her yourself.
If we want to preserve our history it important that we find a way better than throwing up our arms and whining that those preservation bullies are letting yet another building fall prey to demolition by neglect. So I’ve got some suggestions for you whether you are a preservation professional or a neighbor witnessing this happening in your own town. Being a victim accomplishes nothing, but taking action can change everything.
How To Stop Demolition By Neglect
I’ve never been a passive person and when I see someone skirting the rules it really steams me! I’ve written previously about how demolition is a choice, not a solution, but the problem still continues. So these suggestions below, if your town has the gumption to implement them, should significantly slow down or even stop demolition by neglect. Let me know your thoughts.
1. Stop Issuing Demo Permits
Hey, city officials, want to stop demolitions in your historic districts? Then stop issuing demolition permits! If you keep giving people permission to demo they will keep taking advantage of your leniency. I understand city politics are very complicated (I serve on a city board), but if this matters to you then take up the fight and make the change. Bad characters, if they know a city will not bend and issue a demo permit to any building suspected of demolition by neglect, will eventually stop using this practice to undermine our preservation rules.
2. Better Fines & Liens
If a homeowner neglects a property a lot of cities place fines on the property, but those fines are often simply ignored by the owners who know that they can often be forgiven or aren’t necessary to be paid until the property sells which could be years or decades away. What if the fines were applied to the property tax bill every year by the property appraiser and the neglecting owner had to feel the pain of them every year with their tax bill? That might encourage a little action.
3. Deny Infill Permits
If a city suspects that a building is subjected to demolition by neglect then in addition to not allowing a demo permit they also ensure that a permit for new infill construction on that property will not be allowed. They would only be issued a permit for the repair and restoration of the building and perhaps that repair permit would be free of charge. Stop enabling bad behavior and you’ll get less of it.
4. Social Proof & Shame
With the advent of social media, shame is used in too many bad ways, but it can also be a force for good too. Just like deadbeat dads need to be called out and encouraged to do the right thing the same could apply to property owners who are playing the dirty game of demolition by neglect. Now, this can easily go too far by shaming a neighbor because their lawn hasn’t been cut, or painted their house a weird color, but used appropriately social shame can move mountains and a strong neighborhood association will often scare off potential demolishers.
5. Tax Incentives for Repair & Restoration
I’ve been focusing more on the stick and less on the carrot so far but there are ways to encourage good behavior rather than just punishing bad behavior. Why not provide property tax incentives for improvements made to historic properties? Or allow small grants to homeowners wishing to do the right thing? Some cities offer free burying of power lines to a property in historic districts which benefits the homeowner and the city. There are countless options and dollar amounts that any city can offer to best incentivize the proper care of their historic resources I’ve even seen one small town that provides free paint for homeowners looking to paint the exteriors of their houses because that improves property values which increases tax revenues which essentially pays for the cost of the paint. Get creative!
6. Mothballing Programs
If you can keep the weather out of a building you can keep it protected until a more responsible owner comes along. This might be cross the lines on private property rights, but if you leave a vacant house with broken out windows and a failing roof could a city have the right to tarp the roof and board the windows up to not only protect the house from neglect but also protect citizens and neighbors from the dangers of a house that might collapse? I don’t know, but asking these kind of radical questions is the only way to start finding solutions to this problem.
I’ve giving you six ways that could potentially fight demolition by neglect, but I want to hear your thoughts too. What is working your area? What is absolutely not working? This is a very real problem for historic buildings and it needs address by all of us no matter where we are. Let’s keep talking about solutions and maybe soon we’ll find some that really work!