Why you should care
Because people could buy their first home even without rich parents to help.
Three years ago, Roubaix was ranked the poorest town in France. Unemployment is at 31 percent, since the collapse of France’s textile industry sent the population of this once prosperous industrial city plummeting. Maybe that’s why the city council voted to OK the dernier recours, a Hail Mary pass of a housing policy: Offer 18 of the city’s abandoned houses for 1 euro each and see if that will get families streaming into Roubaix.
So why isn’t every city with abandoned houses — or even unused houses — or every small town with a brain drain doing the same? When numbers of empty properties in London’s wealthiest neighborhoods have actually increased in recent years, despite tax incentives to fill them, why are those neighborhoods allowed to languish partially uninhabited?
Why not just confiscate properties that have been left uninhabited for more than 18 months and let them do some actual good for people?
Of course, you’ve got to set some ground rules: In Roubaix, the buyers’ families have to live in the house with them, they have to pay for renovations of what’s basically a squat and they have to live there for six years. The logic, presumably, is to keep away people just looking for an investment property and to benefit young couples looking to build a long-term community. Then, presumably, other people attracted to that community will follow, even if the houses cost a little more than 1 euro by then.
This issue is worth examining beyond just blighted properties. Left-wing politicians in the U.K. have demanded higher taxes on empty homes, but let’s take it a step further. Why not just confiscate properties that have been left uninhabited for more than 18 months and let them do some actual good for people?
As you might have guessed, American cities have also tried Roubaix’s plan. In 2014, Detroit auctioned off some of its nicest abandoned homes for just $1,000, with the caveat that buyers had to live in them and bring them up to code. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s City Council recently announced that it’s considering reviving the $1 house program used to combat urban blight in the 1970s and ’80s, which sold abandoned homes for … well, you get the picture.
The problem in Roubaix, explains Christian L. Redfearn, a professor of real estate at the University of Southern California, may turn out to be one of scale. “The big question is whether 18 families is enough to make a dent in a city of almost 100,000 people. Not likely. And, not likely if the 18 are just random folks who are there only because housing can be had for 1 euro.” But you could make a real dent by seizing the 1,652 unoccupied properties in London’s Kensington and Chelsea, and revitalizing a neighborhood that’s turned into a wealthy ghost town where only overseas buyers can afford to stake a claim.
There are a lot of abandoned houses out there, and a lot of people who’d like to own a home but can’t afford it. Get the right kind of community-minded human capital, and more will follow. But an aggressive anti-blight program could bring about gentrification and price out current residents of the neighborhood, another problem that will require completely different solutions. Redfearn cautions that the best way to make a proposal like this work would be to take a lot of current residents willing to make some changes, mix in a bunch of new families and try to shake up a vibrant neighborhood cocktail.
Another question: How cheap is cheap enough? With renovations on the houses in Roubaix estimated to costs tens of thousands of euros, one resident, quoted in French newspaper Libération, perhaps put it best: You can buy regular houses in Roubaix for less.