You find them in every state, small towns where the main engine of commerce has left, leaving empty storefronts and depressed times in their wake. These disinvested places seem left behind, apart for commerce, with little future evident. Many are attractive places with classic architecture and long standing residents who have weathered it all. You want to take these places in your arms and make them better, but how to make them sing and dance again can be elusive.

Too often renewal efforts target the downtown areas of these places. Often not yielding the results wanted. Tearing down old classic buildings, attracting name brand big stores, and support for new subdivisions tied to downtown end up sputtering. They also can create gentrification that drives out long time low income residents.

Surprisingly, the biggest asset these towns have is their stock of existing affordable housing. These small towns were once factory or mill towns. Ones built by the factory owner. They tend to be well laid out with affordable housing for workers, downtown businesses that provide services, and tree lined pleasant streets. When the factory closes, storefronts went dark, but the good layout and infrastructure of the community remained.

Some small towns are starting to realize the value of upgrading existing housing, while keeping them affordable. An example of this is what Kannapolis NC (see link below) has done with the aid of both federal and state grants to homeowners. At the same time, the city doubled efforts to bring in new industry to fill old factory buildings. Keeping the stock of affordable housing attracted high rent stressed urban workers to move there.

New revenue flowed into Kannapolis helping small business downtown to reoccupy existing store fronts. The combined increase in tax revenue helped this city fill in needed community building blocks such as a community theater and minor league ball park.

It doesn’t always work everywhere, but affordable housing in this day and age may be key in helping a left behind community to sing and dance again.

David Young

Additional Reading:

Kannapolis Resurrected by Jen Tote McGivney, Charlotte Magazine

Federal Rural Housing Programs - US Department of Agriculture

Practical Principles for Places Recovering from Disinvestment by Steve Mouzon, Common Edge

These Cities Tried to Tackle Disinvestment. Here are lessons from what happened by Haru Coryne and Tony Briscoe, Pro Public