Jackson, Mich., Seeks to Eliminate Blight, Vacant Properties

by James Brooks 

Difficult economic times have forced cities to embrace their creativity and develop innovative methods for addressing challenges. The City of Jackson, Mich., has begun to explore a number of initiatives, such as form-based codes and shared-service agreements to improve efficiency throughout its local government. Strengthening the interactions among the city's staff is also at the core of the problem-solving approach in Jackson. 

In the area of land use and housing, the city's elected and professional management team, under the leadership of City Manager Larry Shaffer, have directed actions to update the city's comprehensive plan. A central feature of the plan is eliminating blight and vacant properties. 

Jackson has a problem with blight control that accompanies vacant properties. Development of a comprehensive housing plan became a primary concern for local officials. Leaders in Jackson have provided staff with greater latitude in the design and implementation of housing priorities and outcomes toward the goal of eliminating blighted properties. 

Until recently, the city did not possess a comprehensive list of vacant properties. Too many blighted and vacant properties stood as economic drains that wasted city resources and decreased property values. The real property review plan began with individual inspections of every possibly vacant property within city limits. Predictions of what properties could be vacant were based upon water usage reports over two quarters. The next step required visiting all 657 properties with low water usage scores and inspecting each with a staff-developed checklist. 

The city found that 462 of these properties were actually vacant. The conclusion of each inspection resulted in a staff recommendation regarding the future of the property. 

All 657 site visits were completed within two months. The rapid completion of the inspections was due to the committed city staff, who were empowered to solve problems in the field and exercise the necessary authority to bring the task to conclusion. 

Former Mayor Dunigan commented on the staff's involvement, "Inspectors went out seven days a week, and were excited to be a part of the project. The staff was fully immersed in the concept, and everyone was actively participating." 

Numerous city departments including planning and zoning, the historic district commission, legal, water and housing participated in the process. 

Information about this effort in Jackson, Mich., was gleaned from a one-day convening of federal, state and local actors in the State of Michigan, supported by NLC, in partnership with the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. During this forum on Neighborhoods and Local Economies, participants began a process for defining place making and enumerating livability principles to suit their own needs and to create a framework that can support economic growth and prosperity statewide. To learn more about this convening, contact brooks@nlc.org

Details: To learn more about the vacant property inspections in Jackson, contact Pat Burtch, deputy city manager, at pburtch@cityofjackson.org; Larry Shaffer, city manager at lshaffer@cityofjackson.org or (517) 768-6453.