Some local governments hardest hit by population losses are struggling with what has been left behind: large numbers of abandoned housing units.
Sponsored LinksCensus figures released Thursday underscore the problem: In places racked by foreclosure, job loss, and a weak economy, housing units haven't fallen as fast as population.
A handful of cities such as Detroit have demolished thousands of housing units over the past few years. Many others — such as Baltimore, where city officials said as many as 10,000 empty buildings need to come down — have seen levels remain flat.
Although an eighth of the nation's 800 largest counties have lost population since 2005, fewer than half of those have seen declines in housing stock.
"The principal impediment is the cost," said Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner of code enforcement for Baltimore Housing, which tears down 200 to 300 buildings a year.
That city plans to use $20 million from a national mortgage settlement to take down 1,000 buildings that won't displace many residents or cause much structural damage to nearby homes. After that, Braverman said, costs rise "into the stratosphere" quickly.
On tours of Cleveland, Representative Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, has seen how Cuyahoga County's plummeting population has left streets dotted with vacant housing.
"These houses, they're eyesores, and drug traps, and crime traps," LaTourette said.
He and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, in March co-sponsored the Restore our Neighborhoods Act, asking Congress to appropriate $4 billion to help communities demolish vacant buildings. The bill is tied up in a House committee.
"If we're talking billions rather than millions, we can get a lot more done," LaTourette said.
Many states are just passing laws to help cities. New York last July made it easier for cities to demolish buildings and re-use the land. Georgia this year expanded its land-banking law, and Pennsylvania is considering a similar measure.
Frank Alexander, co-founder of the Center for Community Progress, said the laws would help municipalities follow Michigan's Genesee County, which has shed more than 6,000 housing units in five years.
"It's not a silver bullet," he said. "It doesn't create redevelopment. But it does take the properties that are liabilities and at least eliminate the liabilities."
Braverman said that was important. Although many neighborhoods in Baltimore are thriving, he said, some distressed areas need more help than the city or state can afford.
"It's an issue of national consequence," Braverman said. "You can't afford not to care what's happening in cities like Baltimore, because really it's cities that are going to be the engine driving the economy."
This story first appeared in USA Today.