DEVELOPMENT Dilapidated structure knockdowns drag out
In some parts of Beaumont, one can find remnants of once-booming subdivisions in nearly empty blocks. The homes that remain often are vacant, with sagging roofs or missing doors or runaway vegetation.
In many cases, a red tag is the only indication to passers-by that the city is trying to do anything about them.
In 2018, some 300 homes were on the city’s list for possible demolition. That means they’ve been recognized as a dilapidated structure for a variety of reasons — no roof, extreme fire damage or other factors that makes the home uninhabitable.
Nearly 20 percent of Beaumont’s land area is made up of vacant lots, though not all of that is space left by demolished homes in neighborhoods. And the city is making moves to open the other vacant space for development, one recent example being the Northwest Parkway bisecting 600 acres that now can, and likely will, be developed.
Still, like many across the nation, the city is doing what it can to tear down unsightly, unsafe structures and fill subdivisions’ holes, especially when businesses and potential residents are moving to the west ends of the world.
It’s not easy.
“We struggle with this constantly,” Beaumont director of planning and community development Chris Boone said. “There’s only so much we can do. But when the market’s not there to allow for redevelopment, it’s going to be incumbent on the government to facilitate that.”
The Beaumont City Council may be making moves to emphasize just that. At a recent meeting, the council expressed interest in learning more about how to promote development in already established residential areas, called “infill.”
The first major step in the process is to ramp up the demolition of dilapidated homes.
Councilman Audwin Samuel said that’s imperative to the city’s growth.
“As you go through our city and see dilapidated structures, it’s not conducive to offering hope and promise,” he said.
In the past, City Councils asked city staff to present about 60 structures set for demolition at a time. That, combined with the city’s aging housing stock, has led to a backlog of structures set for demolition.
The council recently decided to get rid of that direction in the hope that the city can catch up the number of homes that are tagged — 302 — to those that are actually demolished in a year — just under 100.
“As far as dilapidated buildings, if there’s no hope for renovating, we owe it to the neighborhood to take them down as fast as we can,” Councilman W.L. Pate said.
Despite the possibility for legal action from property owners who don’t want their home to be demolished and nearly a year-long grace period that can be given for others who say they’ll fix the code violations that put the home on the list for demolition, the hard part is far from over.
Finding someone to develop the now-vacant lots is challenging because it often takes more work for developers than building dozens of houses on newly platted land. Evidence can be seen across the city in blocks that were once filled with homes but now have only a handful.
“To do infill you have to look at the site, the floodplain, the sewer and gas lines and determine if a site is ready to go,” Boone said. “If you’ve already got a plat of land where all that is in place ready to go, it’s quicker and cheaper. The short answer is, infill is trickier and more expensive.”
Additionally, homeowners are more apt to buy a home in an area where they expect home values will be stable. As a result, it’s more attractive to buy a home or build in a booming subdivision, which often means those that appear stable keep growing and those that don’t continue to lose homes.
“When the market isn’t there to make it happen, the local government has to work to change it,” Boone said.
In the past, the city and other local agencies have used federal grant money to help homeowners with down payments to make it easier to afford homes. They’ve also used the money to build streets and other infrastructure, which decreases the cost to build homes and usually trickles down to lower the price of the home.
The city can use the same federal dollars to buy property and donate it to nonprofit organizations that build homes for certain qualifying residents.
“We do some of that to try to make it more affordable for someone to buy an existing or new house,” Boone said.
Another route is to provide incentives for homeowners and builders. One of those is called an “empowerment zone,” which gives city tax abatement for the development of new homes in target ares.
Boone said that likely will be a part of a targeted program the council could decide to undertake. It also likely would include an increase in code enforcement action to make the entire area more desirable and, if the plan is successful, lead to the building of more homes.
Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C., said the key to increase population is to focus more on quality life for residents than actively trying to bring in more people.
“The way you succeed is figuring out what your assets are, who’s attractive to you and how do you improve the quality of life so people will want to live in the city and people in the city will hopefully prosper,” he said. “People have shown for decades the best long-term economic economic strategy is investing in your human capital.”
That means cities need to meet with their residents to find out what they want, be it neighborhood grocery stores, brewpubs or more families and good schools.
“It’s a long game that you really have to play if you’re serious about stabilizing your neighborhoods,” Mallach said.