Reconceptualizing blight: A geographical and economic analysis of urban housing code violations in Buffalo, NY
Weaver, R. C.
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The concept of urban blight lacks an objective identity both in theory and practice. Neither policymakers nor social scientists have settled on a definition of the phenomenon, despite the ongoing, decades-long crusade against it initiated by the urban renewal programs of the mid-20 th Century. On top of this is, however, perhaps a more important issue: there is no collective appetence in either political circles or the academic literature to ascribe a standardized meaning to the concept. Explicitly, under current institutional arrangements elected officials often benefit from the ambiguity inherent to the blight concept, as they hold considerable discretion over anti-blight expenditures and projects, and thus they have little incentive to change the status quo. Urban scholars, on the other hand, who regularly criticize the arbitrary nature of most blight policies, often seek to preserve the phenomenon's subjective existence as a complex idea held in the minds of city stakeholders. For these reasons there is decidedly little empirical research on the topic, and efforts to evaluate blight policies are made difficult by a lack of quantifiable goals and objectives. In response to these issues, this project consists of a series of concentrated efforts geared toward three enterprises intended to improve prospects for more efficient blight policy and more frequent and transferable empirical blight research: consistent conceptualization, operationalization, and analysis. First, a thorough review of blight literature suggests several common conceptual elements that inform the development of an appealing operational definition. Next, this definition is contextualized within a unique framework designed to illustrate that operationalizing blight need not disavow the concept from its complex origins and interrelationships with other urban socioeconomic phenomena. Following this discussion, the proposed blight definition is employed in spatial and economic analyses of the problem in Buffalo, NY. Several methods of cluster detection illuminate patterns of blight in the city, and formal hedonic modeling reveals individual level preferences for local quantities of blight throughout Buffalo. The findings suggest that the proposed definition is an appropriate quantifiable surrogate for blight. Insofar as blight has evaded consistent quantification and measurement since its promotion to the national policy agenda in the 1940s, this represents a significant contribution to the literature. Furthermore, it offers several implications for public policy, especially with respect to recalibrating policy tools with set criteria and measurable objectives.