DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A new study commissioned by Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity paints a disturbing picture of neighborhoods in decline. Dubbed the “blight map”, most of the areas marked by abandoned and unkempt housing are in the city’s southeast quadrant. But, researchers say the study shows that all taxpayers are picking up the tab for absent and irresponsible property owners.

“Do you want to live next to a house that’s boarded up? Do you want to live next to a property that’s never mowed? And people use as a trash dump? Most people would say ‘no’,” says Bill Hall, CEO of Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity.

Hall says ‘blight’ is any unkempt property that impacts the value of the property around it. And according to the study from researchers at the University of North Texas, 16 percent of Dallas’ land mass falls into that category.

“It’s not just that it’s ugly and we don’t like it,” says Jane Massey, Habitat’s Director of Neighborhood Research and Revitalization. “This is a real cost. So it matters not just to the people who live in the neighborhoods; but, to people who live everywhere in Dallas.”

For example: researchers found that the cost for code inspection in blighted areas is roughly $60,000 per square mile. That compares to a cost of $5,000 per square mile in other areas. And police costs skyrocket as well.

“Those high blighted areas, which only represent 16 percent of Dallas’ land mass, represented 30 percent of the crime,” says Massey, “so that tells the story, right there.”

Irasema Panameno grew up in West Dallas in a neat, brick home that greets visitors with a lush lawn and flower filled pots. Yet, there are pockets of poverty as close as the corner. She says she’s watched the neighborhood around her go from “good, to bad, to really, really, bad.” Still, she says her parents feel connected to the community — warts and all.

“They’ve had many opportunities to move to Plano or Fort Worth; but, because this is where their family is, it’s where their home is, they’ve stayed here.”

Hall points to a now vacant lot in West Dallas the agency purchased. Before it was demolished, the rundown house on it once belonged to a notorious neighborhood gang. “A year from now, there will be a house there,” says Hall. It’s the kind of transformation that he says he’d like to see happen more often, even without the involvement of non-profits.

Bernard Weinstein, an economist as SMU’s Cox School of Business, says Habit for Humanity does a “great job”; but, combating urban decay is a monumental task.

“You can invest in infrastructure, and the city has done some of that, “ says Professor Weinstein, “but, it’s just a tough, tough job, and it takes a long, long time. Because we’re so spread out and because there’s so much new land for development, it’s very hard to channel resources into these blighted areas that are pretty much the same as they were a decade ago.”

Habitat officials say they don’t have all of the answers; but, hope the study’s findings will provide the hard data needed to start a conversation about what works and what policies could be changed to get better results with resources already available.

“What actions should we take as a city that are better than just putting liens on a property that are never paid?,” asks Hall.

A conference is scheduled for next month to discuss the study’s findings — and advocates say — to look for ways to turn that new data into improved policies to address the problem.

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