CLARKSBURG, W. Va. -- There is a landfill in this town where nothing but the remains of abandoned houses are buried.
Nearby sits the Department of Public Works heavy equipment that put the debris there as part of an aggressive demolition program to control the blight of a half-century of industrial decline.
During the past decade, the program demolished buildings and cleared land on nearly 300 properties to reduce blight, increase housing values and advance the city's post-industrial recovery.
A once-booming glass and coal center, Clarksburg experienced a population increase from 4,050 in 1900 to 32,014 in 1950. Hazel-Atlas Glass was one of several companies that employed thousands of workers who traveled to North Central West Virginia to find work. The manufacturing floor of Hazel-Atlas alone took up a full 15 acres.
But after 1950, those manufacturers slowly began to decline. People lost their jobs, and Clarksburg's population fell. Today, just 16,550 people live in Clarksburg.
The result was widespread vacancy and the risks that often come with it. After sitting vacant for 20 years, the Hazel-Atlas plant burned to the ground in 2007, the last embers smoldering for five days before firefighters could extinguish them.
"When we demolish buildings, that's exactly what we're hoping to avoid," said Adam Barberio, Clarksburg's code enforcement supervisor.
The problem of vacant buildings in Clarksburg has been high on city government's priority list for more than a decade. City council members have chosen a simple strategy to contend with problems related to blight: prioritize, demolish and clear away.
But addressing vacant and abandoned properties was not always a government priority, said Jim Hunt, former mayor and current Clarksburg councilman.
"With city budgets, you almost never gain any traction with big demolition projects," he says. "Everyone talks about it and everyone knows that vacant properties are a problem, but there's no continuing reward when you tear a building down, so it's tough to get council to support it."
So he came up with a plan.
In addition to his duties as councilman, Mr. Hunt managed the Clarksburg Field Office of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, established to increase the state's supply of low- and moderate-income housing.
Mr. Hunt argued that the fund also should be used to prevent blighted properties from diminishing the value of low-income housing. And the fund made low-interest loans available to municipalities to help cover the cost of demolishing vacant houses.
"It was a leap of faith, but the thinking was that if cities would have these vacant lots, adjoining houses would rise in value, there would be room for new housing, and these places would rebuild and revitalize," he said.
Four cities took advantage of the Housing Development Fund's demolition loan -- Shinnston, Clarksburg, Fairmont and Salem.
Clarksburg officials identified more than 300 homes -- all of which had been unoccupied for at least three years -- that seemed ripe for demolition based on complaints from neighbors, observation and other information. Houses were chosen after it was decided that large buildings, such as the Hazel-Atlas plant, were too big and expensive to demolish first.
They rated each house using criteria such as the value of the lot, whether the house was ready to fall down, whether it attracted crime, contained asbestos or other hazards, or had historical value.
Owners were identified and letters were sent asking whether they had plans for the houses, offering low-interest loans and warning they would be fined if they failed to upgrade their properties. Fifteen homeowners responded and were offered low-cost demolition and payment plans. The city charged about half of the $30,000 it typically costs to tear down a house.
"Destruction isn't our goal, but you've got to realize that in the private sector no one's going to do anything about these buildings unless there's money to be made," Mr. Hunt said. "So what the city's stuck with are all the remainders -- houses that are almost valueless that can't be feasibly fixed up or sold."
By the end of the decade, the demolition project helped reduce the number of vacant houses in the city to 919 and lower vacancy rates from 14 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2010.
From the city's perspective, it was a citywide cleanup program, said Mr. Barberio, the code enforcement supervisor.
"These vacant properties can be dangerous and bring the prices of other homes down. So getting rid of them is like an investment into the future."
This story was produced by Pittsburgh Today, an online regional indicators project. The article and more information on vacant properties can be found at Pittsburghtoday.org. First Published September 18, 2011 4:00 AM