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6 Ways to Stop Demolition by Neglect

6 Ways to Stop Demolition by Neglect

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 addressed 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!

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12 thoughts on “6 Ways to Stop Demolition by Neglect

  1. Grace Episcopal Church in Plainfield, NJ, is in the process of being sold to developers who will demolish it and build housing. We have a development crazed mayor who is in bed with the vestry of the church. The church claims to be financially unable to keep the building. Is there a way we can prevent demolition? The church lies just outside the boundary of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District and the church had temporary historic status but that was not renewed so it isn’t protected.


  2. my mom had a vision to own a house but there where alot of diffculties for her to keep up the maintenanceon the property,so in that neglect the building is falliing apart..what can i do for her…please help

    1. Thanks for the DIY
      I will try it this month

      I got new windows and now it feels like I’m out side when I cross those windows.

      I will give you an update

      1. MY house is going to be demolished by May 10 and i paid for a permit to rehab it And all i need is a plot plan to approve the permit but the code enforcement Chief won’t allow me to complete the process a is having a judge sign a warrant.

  3. Great post! I actually wrote an essay last semester on different Demolition By Neglect Ordinances from cities around the country. Another tactic I found was what I like to call a “scorched earth” policy. Essentially, if the building is demoed as the result of demo by neglect, the property will be undevelopable for a prolonged period of time. It eliminates the incentive to tear down and build new/bigger/etc.

  4. I have a 103 year old house. Its extremely hard to find anyone with work ethic to work on it. The two excellent carpenters here charge exorbitant prices. My church tore out my upstairs bathroom a year and a half ago. SO my shower was surrounded with plastic sheeting. I finally threw a fit. They came and filed the shower and the tile was expensive. It looks wonky. Corner with a big gap etc. I am single and have no help.

  5. Protecting the interior by assuring that the roof and windows are kept intact is critical to preserving an older building until it can be restored. I had been very concerned that the unoccupied 121 year old brick bungalow right next door to the 129 year old remodeled house that I had bought a year ago would be in terrible shape. It had apparently been empty for nearly a year already so that was 2 years nobody had lived there. The yard was neglected and overgrown and there was junk sitting on the front and rear porches. Neighbors told me an elderly widow who had last lived there had to move to assisted housing,

    But then a few weeks ago I saw a crew working on it and a sign outside. The family had sold it, as is, to a real estate developer who was only cleaning it up superficially to sell as a “flip”. The crew let me walk through the whole house and I was really relieved. Clearly someone (perhaps the elderly woman’s family) had made sure that the roof was intact and had shut off the utilities and closed it up well. The house is worn and faded inside but all the original lathe and plaster is intact, as are the hardwood floors. No sign of roof leaks, the furnace, electrical system and plumbing are all pretty recent. It’s small but still has a lot of original charm (though Scott will be sad to hear that most of the windows were replaced with bland double pane newer ones, though I think the front sunporch is intact.) Other than replacing the very shabby bathroom with new fixtures and paint, painting the dark stained site-built wooden kitchen cabinets and replacing the scratched up laminate counters and linoleum floor, the house is in livable condition. Even the walk out basement seemed to be totally dry and there were no settling cracks anywhere on the brick exterior or inside plaster. Doesn’t need anything major, just a lot of sprucing up and it could be a really charming home. They are asking $89,000 for it in a tree-lined neighborhood with $150,000 to $300,000 homes. If I wasn’t already too involved with fixing up my house beside it I would seriously consider buying and restoring it myself, either as a rental or to make a profit on a historically honorable re-hab.

    But the little house is an example of how with a little care, even an “abandoned” building can be preserved over time until it can be restored.

  6. Great ideas! some of which are in force in San Francisco, but certainly not the step child, Oakland, across the Bay where I live. The real problem in CA is that the development business dominates our politics. Yes, we have a huge Dem majority in our legislature, but many are just repubs in dem clothing. that’s how it plays here in CA.

    1. The problem in San Francisco (and I’m speaking as a restoration-minded owner of a 1917 house in SF) is that the permits are obstructionist in trying to bring things back to original condition. Basically, if you touch it (say, replacing a beam that had dry-rot) you have to bring it entirely up to code, which is economically difficult. Or if you want to remove the asbestos shingles covering the original clapboard, you have to bring in the super-pricey environmental containment experts. Same with addressing the old lead paint. Plus there are all the permits and inspections. But just leaving it alone costs nothing (not that I want to do that).

  7. I have a 100 year old store that I do not own outright that has been in a family trust. It perfectly matches this issue, and it will soon be mine (we’ll see–we have provided the siblings with a letter of intent). I am flummoxed on where to start and how much to rip out and replace and how to fund it. Know of anyone in Oregon that could help us with this?

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