A number of older East Coast and Midwest cities have experienced severely declining populations as traditional industries close down or move elsewhere around the globe.
In so many ways, the loss of residents sits heavily on those who stay on, from a decline in services and educational opportunities for children to diminished tax rolls and boarded-up stores.
It doesn’t matter if you have a good job with high pay in a city that has been in decline — it will still be a burden to your pocketbook because the value of your home has probably peaked and in some cities like Detroit, has been dramatically slashed.
Even if you lived in a "good" area of a city like Detroit, home values can’t be maintained as more and more of your neighbors go elsewhere looking for jobs.
The question is, can’t anything be done to help?
My suggestion is a radical one.
In cities where the loss of jobs has been so dramatic that residents have been moving away for decades, the city government needs to make the drastic decision to reduce the areas within its boundaries where housing is available. The concept means selectively zoning out housing, removing existing individual residents and returning a specific section of the city to green space.
Let’s say, for example, your city once boasted a population of 400,000 people crowded into 25 square miles of space. That was back in 1950, but now your city counts only a populace of 200,000 all still living within the same 25 square miles. Populations rise and fall, but on the East Coast and Midwest, the boundaries of the cities never change.
I say keep the boundaries and create parks. If your city of now 200,000 people has most of that population living in the 15-square-mile southwest corridor, while the 10-square-mile northeast corridor has experienced the biggest population loss, and, indeed, fewer than 100 families are now inhabited there, I say boost the southwest corridor and return the northeast corridor to nature.
There are a number of once flourishing cities east of the Mississippi that have been in a steady decline for decades, from Newark, N.J., to Youngstown, Ohio, but Detroit seems to be the most egregious example. In the 1950s, Detroit was one of the country’s largest cities with 1.5 million people, but has seen those numbers diminish to 750,000 as the city has declined along with the U.S. auto industry.
What has that meant for the local housing market? The Chicago Tribune reported the median price for a home sold at the end of 2008 in Detroit was $7,500. That’s right, just $7,500! In thriving cities, people pay that much for a parking space. …CONTINUED
Other cities have experienced a similar decline in population. The old industrial city of Utica, N.Y., saw its population peak at 101,740 in 1930. Today, less than 60,000 people live there. In West Virginia, Wheeling’s population climbed to almost 62,000 people back in 1930. Today, less than 30,000 have a residence there.
The population loss in Newark, N.J., has been a little less dramatic, but considering the city is in spitting distance to the Big Apple, it’s nothing to brag about. Its population peaked in 1950 at 439,000. Today, it’s about 279,000.
I’ve never been to Utica. I’ve passed through Youngstown and Wheeling, but it was years ago. Newark and Detroit I’ve seen recently, and it was my ride through Motor City that convinced me a strategy of zoning out residences was a good alternative.
When I was driving through Detroit I got lost and ended up in some rougher areas of town. This was a few years back and already whole square blocks had been cleared of all structures to keep the riffraff and drug trade out of the abandoned buildings. I remember thinking, instead of having just empty, rubble-strewn lots, why not replant trees and create a park or woodlands.
The first mayor that I’ve seen adopt this type of program was Jay Williams of Youngstown, Ohio. The population of Youngstown peaked in 1960 at 166,688 people. Today, only some 73,000 call the city home, and Williams has attempted to "right-size" the city by razing hundreds of abandoned homes, stores and schools to match the population decline.
"The goal was to stop looking at the city as it had been designed, but for a future that realistically was 80,000 to 85,000 people," Williams said.
Among the cities looking at Williams’ program is Flint, Mich., where the population peaked at close to 200,000 in 1970. Today, the population has almost been halved.
Why would cities even consider such a move? First, it wouldn’t have to maintain the same level of services to the section of the city where folks no longer live, thus savings oodles of money. Secondly, a new park is an instant beautification scheme.
There is a third reason to consider a zone-out of old residential schemes. For the remaining citizens, if residential development is contained in fewer square miles, then home prices should stabilize in those areas even if the city continues to lose jobs and population. Indeed, intensifying residential and business locations in a smaller area could result in an urban resurgence, albeit at a lower level than the heyday of 40 years before.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books, including "After the Fall: Opportunities and Strategies for Real Estate Investing in the Coming Decade."
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor.