Tackling urban blight with a paintbrush

A former Port-a-potty warehouse, set to be spruced up.

Terri Still has lived in Camden, New Jersey since she was in second grade. But these days, as she walks around her neighborhood, she tries not to look around her to avoid seeing the blight that surrounds her. 

“It’s depressing seeing it all constantly,” she says. “You try not to think about it.” 

Across the street, Christopher Toepfer pokes around inside an abandoned warehouse. There are stacks of broken palettes and scattered food wrappers, evidence of squatters. The building used to house a porta-potty company, but it’s been vacant for several decades.

“We call [these] ‘abando-miniums’ in the vacant building business,” he says.

But outside, the warehouse is getting a facelift. A small crew is painting the exterior dove grey, covering up years of graffiti. They're employed by Toepfer’s nonprofit, The Neighborhood Foundation, and the warehouse is one of about 40 buildings the Foundation has boarded up and painted in Camden this summer. Across the country, they’ve done about 1,500 similar projects, focusing primarily on residential buildings in 21 different cities.

Local officials who have to deal with large tracts of vacant and abandoned buildings often resort to one of two options: fix 'em up or tear 'em down.

Toepfer represents middle ground. His foundation paints the boarded-up buildings to look as though they have real, working windows and doors. Occasionally the painters even draw plants or pets in the window.

“Sometimes, we even do facades of trees, like silhouettes of trees, to cover graffiti,” he says.

Once an urban area falls into decline, there is a spiral effect. Abandonded houses fall into disrepair and are often used by vagrants or criminals. That depresses the value of occupied homes and makes the neighborhood less desirable. Property values decline, the remaining residents sell up or move out, and landlords find it difficult to rent the housing stock. Those houses fall into disrepair, and the downcycle continues.

The idea is that a makeover, even one that’s just skin deep, can stop this spiral and stabilize a neighborhood. The Neighborhood Foundation charges $500 to paint and secure a house or $2,500 for a larger commercial building. It's a lot cheaper than a renovation, or even a demolition, which could cost $10,000 or $15,000.

It's not just that a paint job can have a beneficial economic effect; it can raise peoples' spirits, too.

I think when they fix things up, it gives people more encouragement,” says Terri Still, the Camden resident. “It makes them want to take pride in where they live.”

Beautification does work, agrees Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Small investments can have large returns."

It’s a strategy realtors and developers have long used. 

“In the 'burbs, when you’re selling a property that hasn’t been lived in for a while, the first thing the realtor will say is 'mow the lawn',” says Wachter, adding that simple fix can boost property values as much as 20 percent.

 Of course, securing and painting a property isn’t a permanent solution — it’s a Band-Aid, literally plastering over the wounds of a city.

But hopefully, that Band-Aid gives it the chance to heal.

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