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Distressed properties, on and offline

Driving home last night from Boston, I caught a piece on NPR about the problem of distressed properties in the wake of the slump in the US housing market and the sub-prime mortgage crisis. As homeowners discover they can’t pay their mortgages, banks forclose on the properties, and they sit abandoned. Often they become targets for looters, who break in and steal copper plumbing, for vagrants who live in them, or for arsonists. Even if they simply decay, they lower property values for other homeowners in the neighborhood.

Some people are proposing radical solutions to the problem. Barbara Reed is the mother of a firefighter who was crippled while fighting an arson fire in a Buffalo, New York abandoned building. She’s tried to launch a movement called “Take Down a House” (pronounced “Ta-dah!”), which believes that the way forward for that struggling city is to remove abandoned houses and shrink the residential housing stock. Unfortunately, she’s discovering that house removal can cost tens of thousands of dollars, especially if the home contains asbestos – it may cost too much money to shrink Buffalo to the size it really needs to be.

There are abandoned and distressed properties on the web as well. If you’ve ever put up a wiki and failed to garden it, you know what I’m talking about. I used to have a small wiki on this domain that Rachel and I used for grocery lists. (Yes, I realize very little is geekier, but it’s really cool to have your partner create a grocery list on a wiki while you go to the store and access it on your phone.) We forgot about it until a speaker’s agency, looking for my bio, came across it and let me know that it had become a link farm for porn. I thanked the woman who let me know and mentioned that it was supposed to be a shopping list – she pointed out that my wife and I appeared to be shopping for some racy things indeed.

If failing to maintain a wiki is like leaving an abandoned building unlocked and unguarded, there are less dramatic ways to abandon a web property. Run a blog on a platform like MT or WordPress and let it go dormant, and you more or less guarantee that your property will be invaded – searching for holes in these platforms and using those holes to install linkfarms has become extremely common. The blog may look unharmed by the outside, but there may be vagrant pharma spammers residing somewhere within. As with architecture, there’s a tough balancing act – should you keep the structure alive for historical reasons or tear it down for the community good? I tore down FreeHaoWu.com not too long ago, because it became clear I couldn’t maintain it and it was becoming a spam magnet.

BlogAfrica.com has never quite become a distressed property, but I’ve felt like a slumlord the past few months – yes, it’s got occupants, but the plumbing is backed up and the hallway lights don’t work. The site is running on an old, buggy version of Reblog, and my attempts to upgrade to a new version weren’t successful. A persistent PHP bug meant that all posts were dated January 1, 1970, a true epoch fail. (S’okay if you didn’t get that joke. It probably means you have a life away from the computer screen.) For the last several months, when people have registered blogs with the service, I’ve begged them to register with Afrigator.com, a much better maintained, full-featured blog aggregator.

Fortunately, someone’s taken the property off my hands – the good folks at AllAfrica.com. AllAfrica was the original host for the aggregator – Kwin Kramer and I came up with the idea for BlogAfrica in 2003, and he hosted the first incarnation of the site on AllAfrica, back before there were many open source blog aggregators (or many African blogs.) When he moved from AllAfrica to other technical projects, I moved BlogAfrica over to my own servers, with substantial help from Boris Anthony, thinking that we might merge it with Global Voices. Over time, it’s become clear that the value of Global Voices is our editorial effort, not our reach as an aggregator, and the projects have remained unmerged.

So now AllAfrica is planning to revive the site, upgrading the technology and, I hope, helping integrate African blogs with their brilliant news content. The site will likely be dark for a couple of days during the transition, but I predict it will be back better and stronger than ever before. And it’s less likely that someone will break in and steal the copper plumbing.

4 thoughts on “Distressed properties, on and offline”

  1. Yes and no, Alaa. You’ve got to keep in mind – northern American cities, for the most part, are shrinking every year. A city like Buffalo had its best days early last century, and it’s had a population that’s been shrinking since the 1950s. I suspect there’s a small population of squatters in some of these buildings, but a lot of them are truly abandoned. In my hometown, Pittsfield, there’s not a ton of squatting in abandoned real estate… because it’s really, really cold and it’s hard to heat these old buildings without central heat.

  2. interesting so this closer to people leaving rural farming communities to urban cities than people leaving a decaying neighborhood to a better one in the same city.

    or is this about birth rates?

  3. Alaa, I think it’s more about labor markets. A lot of small cities (like Buffalo and other small Northeastern cities) have lost their main employment bases. My hometown of Rochester, an hour from Buffalo, used to be the world headquarters of several major international corporations (Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb) and provided solid employment for everyone from PhD researchers to factory workers. Now there are basically just skeletons of those three companies in Rochester, and the main employer is the university. Young people like myself move away because we see no job opportunities in our home communities, and end up in expensive, crowded cities instead (I’m in Boston paying more for rent on my one bedroom in a 3-bedroom apartment than I would pay for an entire one-bedroom apartment of my own in Rochester). So Rochester has lots of dead real estate in its now-hollow city center, an OK suburban base, and an aging population apart from the people who come for university and then leave. Most of my high school classmates now live in New York City, Boston, Washington DC or San Francisco, or have moved to smaller cities in the South where the cost of living is lower.

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