The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

“It's Like They're Tearing Down Your Memories”: Resident Perceptions of Property Vacancy and Blight and Its Implications for Community Practice

Friday, January 17, 2014: 4:00 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, River Terrace, Upper Parking Level, Elevator Level P2 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Samantha Teixeira, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background & Purpose: Recent research has suggested that urban blight, specifically abandoned buildings and vacant lots, is associated with a host of negative physical and mental health outcomes. Despite this knowledge, and the knowledge that environmental hazards are disproportionately located in low-income communities of color, few studies have specifically addressed the impact of property vacancy on individuals and communities.  Even fewer have engaged community residents in order to understand their perceptions of the impact of property vacancy and its implications for their own and their community’s health. 

This purpose of this study was to address this gap by characterizing and describing the perceptions of residents of communities with high levels of property vacancy. Perceptions of neighborhood conditions often dictate the impact that these conditions have on residents well being, so it is important to understand their perceptions prior to developing intervention models.

Methods: The study utilized qualitative methods to understand the lived experiences and perceptions of residents of neighborhoods with high levels of property vacancy.  The study consisted of in depth interviews and participant observation of a diverse group of 11 residents of neighborhoods in Southwestern Pennsylvania who were participants in a year-long vacant lot reclamation course hosted by a local non-profit.  Data collection methods included in depth interviews with each resident and field notes to understand how property vacancy is interpreted, internalized, and perceived in high vacancy communities.  Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed along with field notes through an iterative process of coding and memo writing to identify key themes.

Results: Neighborhood residents described vacant properties including abandoned buildings and vacant land as having a significant impact on their own and their communities’ well being.  Residents described vacancy as having a visceral, visual impact that left them depressed and lowered community morale.  They interpreted it as a symbol of disinvestment and a representation of a community in decline.  More specifically, residents differentiated between the impact of vacant land and vacant buildings in their communities. Vacant land was seen as an eyesore that was frequently overgrown and attracted animals and trash.  Vacant buildings were seen as more sinister, potentially dangerous places that shelter and attract criminal activity, drug use and sales, and more seriously impact surrounding property values. Residents consistently reported property vacancy and its correlates as one of the most serious problems plaguing their community and the problem they would most like to change.  Residents were committed to changing the environmental context of their communities as a step toward improving health and well being related outcomes.

Implications:  This study addresses an important gap in neighborhood effects research by characterizing residents’ perceptions of the impact of property vacancy. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, blight and property vacancy are increasingly common.  Social workers are well suited to address these concerns through policy advocacy, community organizing, and community development. This is a first step toward identifying environmental features deemed most important by neighborhood residents; the next step is coordinated interventions.