Now feels like a good time for cities to impose massive penalties on vacant properties and storefronts. They should ensure that no landlord has cause to believe property is worth more empty, waiting out higher rent.
That’s how we save what restaurants, cafes, and independent shops we have. That’s how we make sure those that don’t survive are more likely to be constructively replaced with new businesses and opportunities as we navigate a long recovery from the current recession.
If the result is that some properties lose tremendous value, well, these are properties whose value is tied to the urban fabric itself being valuable. The harm done to these specific developers and their specific banks and investors is far smaller and more just than the harm done to the future business owners, the residents of cities, and the future developers and bankers who are ready to put spaces to productive use.
The other side of this is a huge government problem in some cities– it can be incredibly hard to open a business in most cities. Taxes collected from vacancies should first and foremost go toward improving the systems– technical and bureaucratic– and process for filling these properties.
City councils should pass the new taxes/fees alongside reforms to remove onerous neighborhood notifications and other “veto” points toward opening a new business in a storefront. These changes should be universal, not just for vacant property. The Great Streamlining should include everything from getting a business license, to zoning reviews (and simplified zoning!), through construction permitting. The only “expediters” necessary should be city employees doing their jobs in the normal course of business. Anything less is a failure.
Crises are great clarifiers. Each one creates massive problems that need solving. Sometimes those problems are brand new and will require new thinking. But often crises serve to push hard on existing fault lines and pressure points that reformers and activists have pointed at for years as systemic failures. Many of our great cities have failed at being great places to do business and have failed to keep vacancies down as rent went up.
We don’t have to keep failing.