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IAAI/USFA Vacant and Abandoned Buildings
Community Group Presentation Outline



1. To make participants aware of the problems and hazards that vacant and abandoned buildings represent in the community.
2. To identify strategies that communities can implement to deal with vacant and abandoned buildings

Every fire investigator knows that vacant or abandoned buildings are a significant public safety issue. Vacant or abandoned structures are unsightly, attract criminal activity, and are a threat to public safety where ever they exist. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that more than 6000 firefighters are injured while fighting fires in these properties every year. NFPA statistics show that more fire fighters are injured while operating at fires involving vacant or abandoned properties that in any other property classification. The loss of six fire fighters operating in a vacant property in Worcester, Massachusetts, in December of 1999 was a tragic example of the hazards these buildings pose to communities.

While no census data is available on vacant or abandoned buildings, researchers at Ohio's Miami University and the University of South Carolina conducted a survey of 100 cities and estimate that more than 18 percent of urban structures are unused. This estimate equates to thousands of building nationwide in communities both large and small. Another source, the Insurance Services Office, estimates there are 21,000 idle properties of 15,000 square feet or more in the United States.1 After the Worcester fire, many communities began exploring just how many buildings were vacant in their jurisdiction. The results are startling: Philadelphia reported more than 27,000 at-risk structures; in Worcester over 250 vacant structures were identified; smaller cities like Lewiston, Maine identified nearly 60 vacant structures.

The terms "vacant" and "abandoned" are often used interchangeably when talking about these buildings. There is, however, a subtle difference in the terms. Black's Law Dictionary defines vacant as "empty; unoccupied". The word abandon is defined as "to desert, surrender, forsake or cede. To relinquish or give up with intent of never again resuming one's right or interest." For buildings, the difference between vacant and abandoned is primarily related to the availability of an owner. Unoccupied buildings where there is a viable owner, i.e. one that is interested in the property and easily contacted, are considered vacant. Where there is no viable owner or an absentee landlord, the property is generally considered abandoned. Unoccupied properties that are secure and well maintained do not pose the threat to public safety that properties that are unoccupied and open to unauthorized access do. Where there is no viable owner, the property is considered abandoned. In research done on urban residential fires, Charles Jennings describes the issue in residential neighborhoods as follows:

Abandonment of property is the most striking indication of neighborhood decline. Large-scale abandonment threatens the stability of neighborhoods and undermines the value of investments made by other property owners. The literature indicates that abandonment and decline of property can be considered as a contagious phenomenon. Fire is intertwined with abandonment as both a cause and an undesired side effect.

Abandonment usually signals the end of a building's productive life. Real estate market conditions, difficulty in obtaining financing for renovation or repair, withdrawal of fire insurance, and declining economic fortunes of tenants all contribute to abandonment. In declining areas, the use value of a building will frequently exceed its market value. Any damage to the building sufficient to vacate it can lead to abandonment by the owner.2

The issues that Jennings describes are those that resulted in significant fire problems in cities such as Detroit; Houston; New Haven, CT; Utica, New York; and Lawrence, Massachusetts. For commercial or industrial properties the issue may be that the building has reached the end of its useful lifecycle and that it would cost more than the building is worth to improve it for continued use. Many industrial buildings in the Northeast fit this category. Environmental pollution and the high cost of mitigation are also factors in the abandonment of commercial properties. Whatever the cause, these rapidly deteriorating buildings in communities become havens for the homeless and vandals, as well as magnets for criminal activity.

George Kelling and Catherine Coles describe the relationship between abandonment and crime as the "Broken Windows theory of social disorder" in their publication Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities:3

If a factory or office window is broken, passersby observing it will conclude that no one cares or no one is in charge. In time, a few will begin throwing rocks to break more windows. Soon all the windows will be broken, and now passersby will think that, not only is no one in charge of the building, no one is in charge of the street on which it faces.

Only the young, the criminal, or the foolhardy have any business on an unprotected avenue, and so more and more citizens will abandon the street to those they assume prowl it. Small disorders lead to larger and larger ones, and perhaps even to crime.

Uninhabited buildings that are not secure - open to unauthorized entry - have a very high probability of intentionally set fires. When fires occur in these buildings, they present a host of unusual problems to fire fighters. Since the buildings are uninhabited, fires may develop for significant periods of time before they are detected and reported. The buildings may contain unprotected hazardous materials and fuel packages that would not be found in occupied buildings. The removal of equipment or structural components and deterioration due to age or weather can weaken the structure causing rapid failure early in a fire. Fire fighters may encounter open shafts, stairways, pits or holes in floors that would not be found in occupied structures. All of these factors contribute to the danger these structures pose to fire fighters operating in vacant or abandoned structures.

At first glance, the prevention of fires in vacant or abandoned properties is relatively simple. Prevent unauthorized access in the short term, and then rehabilitate or demolish the structure in the long term. One of the major obstacles to preventing fires and other crime in these buildings is the cost of security and demolition of abandoned structures. The major building and fire codes used in the United States provide the jurisdiction with the authority to order these actions for buildings that are hazards to public safety. Where there is a viable owner, this action may be successful. However, where the building is abandoned and no viable owner is available, the responsibility reverts to the community. When many properties are involved, the cost of dealing with the problem can be beyond the capability of most communities. Thus, one of the key components of programs aimed at preventing fires in uninhabited properties is the identification of an owner or responsible party early in the vacancy cycle. While it is apparent that a community has to know the magnitude of the problem before it can effectively deal with it, the research from Miami University and the University of South Carolina cited above indicates about one-third of the cities responding to the survey were unable to provide estimates of the number of vacant or abandoned properties. In many communities the problem is just not addressed.

Communities must know which buildings in their jurisdiction are vacant or abandoned to take action. A more proactive approach is to begin to track properties that are at-risk of becoming vacant while a viable owner is still known. One such program was initiated in the early 1980's by the city of New Haven, Connecticut. Using funds from public and private grants, the Arson Warning and Prevention Strategy (AWAPS) was developed. This program allowed the community to identify properties that were at risk of becoming vacant and intervene before abandonment.4 The risk factors that triggered action in New Haven were

  • A history of back taxes
  • Previous structural fires
  • Unabated housing code violations
  • Unreleased liens and attachments

At-risk properties were then targeted for action while the owner was still available and the property occupied. This type of action reduces the cost to the community and places the responsibility for rehabilitation of the property or proper security on the owner early in the cycle of deterioration.

For any program aimed at reducing fires in vacant properties to be successful, the community must have the power to act when vacant or abandoned properties are determined to pose a public safety risk. This power comes from the codes and ordinances that are adopted by the jurisdiction, either at the community or state level. In most cases the primary authority comes from the building and fire codes that are in force in the community. There may also be anti-blight ordnances that are adopted at the community level.

With the power to act in place, the next step is cooperation between the various departments within the community. The fire department responds to the fires when they occur but may not have the authority to intervene prior to that response. The building and health code officials are usually the primary code enforcement authorities. Surveillance of at-risk properties is usually a function of the police department. Funding for security measures and the demolition or rehabilitation of abandoned properties will normally be a function of the community development official or department. If these individual departments in the community are not working together to deal with the issues presented by vacant and abandoned properties, it is unlikely that the community will be successful in dealing with the problem.

Once at-risk buildings are identified, what can the community do to stop fires in them? An effective program includes provisions for the inspection and evaluation of the property early in the vacancy cycle. The courses of action available for long-term mitigation are re-use or demolition. An evaluation can assist officials in making a determination about the proper handling of the property. While a vacant property is waiting for demolition or re-use, it must be properly secured to prevent unauthorized entry.

Security measures for properties that are intact and able to be locked may be as simple as regular surveillance by police and the owner. Where properties are open to unauthorized entry, they must be secured. The most common method of securing vacant and abandoned buildings is boarding them up. While many methods and materials are used, one of the most effective and secure methods is detailed in the United States Fire Administration's National Arson Prevention Initiative Board Up Procedures5. The intent of boarding up a property is the prevention of unauthorized entry. Thus, to be effective all openings in a building must be secured. That includes doors, windows and openings in walls that could be used to gain access. Materials used must be strong enough to prevent access and must be weather resistant. A surveillance program should also be coupled with the board up process to monitor building security. Regular visual inspections of boarded up properties by police, fire department, or neighborhood watch groups will determine if security measures have been damaged and need repair.

In some communities, regular high visibility surveillance is used as the short term method of fire and crime prevention rather than boarding up the properties. While these measures do not require the labor intensive and costly board up process, they do require a significant commitment on the part of the police and community groups involved in the patrol and surveillance activities.

Many communities also use a marking system for vacant properties that are considered to be a risk to fire fighters under fire conditions. Marking of vacant and abandoned buildings is used to alert fire suppression personnel to the potential hazards the buildings pose should a fire occur. The evaluation of the building is an opportunity to rate the potential hazards and determine if the building should be marked. For buildings that pose significant hazards such as holes in floors, deteriorating structural members and combustible interior finish, fire fighters may be directed to operate from the outside in a defensive mode in all cases except were there is known life hazard. Proper security coupled with regular surveillance is one method of ensuring that there are no occupants in vacant buildings that are dangerous to enter under fire conditions.

Once a building is secured and marked, the process of seeking a long-term solution must begin. As discussed above there are generally two routes that can be taken. The first is re-use. If the structure is viable, it may be a candidate for rehabilitation and sale. Other considerations for rehabilitation might be the historical significance of the structure. To facilitate this process, some communities publish lists of vacant properties that are available for reuse or rehabilitation.6 Organizations such as Habitat for Humanities, church or civic groups, or private developers have stepped forward in communities to rehabilitate residential properties. In Lewiston, Maine, the community used a combination of federal, local and private funds to rehabilitate a portion of a vacant shoe mill in the center of the community. This property now has a variety of tenants and is a productive, viable property in a prime location within the community. The reuse of old factories for residential, commercial, or manufacturing occupancies is a popular trend in many old industrial communities. In most cases these efforts are the result of a public/private partnership.

Dealing with vacant and abandoned biddings in communities is a time -consuming and costly undertaking. To be effective a community must address the issue from several perspectives so that they are identified, evaluated, secured, and finally demolished or rehabilitated. To accomplish this requires cooperation between governmental departments, the public and, in many cases, private developers. Where a cooperative effort is not the case, the problem of vacant and abandoned buildings cannot be adequately addressed, and the community will be faced with the significant hazards that these properties pose to the safety of the public and fire fighters.

Strategies for handling vacant and abandoned buildings:

  • Determine the legal authority provided by building and fire codes and ordinances adopted by the community.
  • Develop a system to identify at-risk properties and track those that are vacant.
  • Evaluate vacant and abandoned properties and institute a system for the buildings that communicates potential hazards to responding fire fighters.
  • Develop a marking system for vacant and abandoned buildings.
  • Enforce requirements for the securing of vacant properties by owners.
  • Initiate programs for local government to secure abandoned properties.
  • Monitor the integrity of security provided for vacant and abandoned properties and provide a system to initiate repairs when required.
  • Identify potential public and private funding sources that are available for securing, rehabilitating or demolishing vacant or abandoned buildings.
  • Develop programs to identify those properties that require demolition.
  • Develop programs that assist in the rehabilitation of viable properties.

1 "Cities Begin Considering The Risk of Vacant Buildings", National Center for Policy Analysis,
2 Urban Residential Fires: An Empirical Analysis of Building Stock and Socioeconomic Characteristics for Memphis, Tennessee. Dissertation by Charles R. Jennings, Cornell University, August 1996.
3 Kelling, George L. and Catherine M. Coles. Fixing Broken Windows:Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York:Touchstone, 1996.
4 " New Haven's AWPS program helps authorities pinpoint potential hot spots", Firehouse, August 1980.
5 United States Fire Administration, National Arson Prevention Initiative, Board Up Procedures.
6 Vacant Buildings - Turning a problem into an opportunity,

Discussion Points

  • What are vacant/abandoned buildings
    · Building code definitions
    · Black's Law definitions of vacant and abandoned. Review statistics
    · 18% of urban structures unused
    · More than 21,000 "idle" properties of over 15000 square feet in US
  • Discuss the issues related to vacant and abandoned properties in the community
    · Review statistics
    · Thousands of fires in these properties each year
    · About 72% are incendiary or suspicious
    · Over 5% are set by children
    · More than 6000 fire fighter injuries each year involving these properties
    · A significant threat of fatal injuries such as the deaths of six fire fighters in a vacant property in Worcester,
    Massachusetts, in 1999
    · Vacant properties a contagious phenomenon
    · Blight
    · Rats and vermin
    · Accumulated trash - unsightly and a potential fuel source for fires
  • How can a community deal with vacant properties?
    · Team work and cooperation is essential
    · Know the problem
    · Identify vacant properties
    · Look for early warning signs before properties become vacant
    · Attempt to locate owner
    · Evaluate the building
    · Secure the building to prevent unauthorized access
    · Provide surveillance to monitor security
    · Mark the building to alert fire fighters
    · Determine if the building is a viable candidate for reuse or rehabilitation
    · Schedule for demolition if it is not reusable
  • Where does the money come from?
    · Federal funds
    · Local funding
    · Private involvement
  • What can you do?
    · Report vacant properties
    · Report unauthorized entry into vacant properties
    · Support the enactment of anti-blight ordinances in the community

Using the PowerPoint Support Slides

The PowerPoint support slides provided with this lesson plan are intended to provide a graphical element to this presentation. While the talk can be delivered without the slides, seeing examples of what is being discussed will make a lasting impression on the audience.

The PowerPoint file can be projected using a computer and projector or the slides can be printed as transparencies. The presenter can use the features provided with PowerPoint to provide handouts to the participants by printing the Handout view from the file. Presenters should also review the Notes view of the file as additional information regarding most of the slides is provided.

For those with the capability, photos of buildings and issues from the local community can be easily added to the program to customize the program.

Click here to download the powerpoint presentation (Note: over 20 Mg file)


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