The number of vacant homes and rentals has exploded 52 percent in Pima County in the past 10 years, thwarting a housing market recovery and driving even some middle- and upper-income neighborhoods into decline.
An Arizona Daily Star analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows the spike in unoccupied homes and apartments has pushed Pima County's vacancy rate from 9.4 percent of housing units in 2000 to almost 12 percent in 2010. That means about one in eight homes or apartments in Tucson is vacant.
Large numbers of vacant homes and apartments depress neighbors' home values, invite vandalism and other criminal activity, and increase code-enforcement calls for weeds and neglect. The glut of vacancies also slows the recovery of the region's housing market. The vacant houses need to be sold so the area's housing inventory can get back to normal levels and relieve the downward pressure caused by their rock-bottom prices.
While many homes are vacant because the former owners couldn't afford them and were forced out, the rental market also has been hit hard because many of its low-income occupants left the area in the wake of the housing bust. New residents are also not coming from other states - as they did for decades - because the area's economy has slowed to a crawl.
The Star mapped vacancies by census tract and found the largest number of vacant homes are located where the most speculative housing was built just before the housing bust: in an arc on the outskirts of Tucson running west and north from Sahuarita, into the areas surrounding the Tohono O'odham Reservation and up to Marana. Areas on the south side of Tucson surrounding South Sixth Avenue from 22nd Street to Irvington Road also had high home vacancies.
The largest number of vacant rentals were found in areas where large apartment complexes went out of business, including East Pima Street near North Craycroft Road and the area east of South Alvernon Way between East 22nd Street and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Some low-income areas were hit by both rental vacancies and house vacancies, including Miracle Mile near Interstate 10, and the areas surrounding the intersection of East Grant Road and North Alvernon Way.
Vacancies can lead to housing conditions deteriorating quickly, ushering in other problems, said Albert Elías, Tucson's director of housing and community development. "It erodes the stability of our communities," he said.
More vacancies, more issues
Vacant houses might not start out as a scourge, but they quickly can turn into problems for neighbors.
First, there are weeds and other issues with code enforcement, Elías said. The longer a house stays vacant, the more likely it is that problems with trespassing, bigger code issues and criminal activity can arise.
"Vacancies just draw the most undesirable people in the city," said Jane Baker, president of the Balboa Heights Neighborhood Association, which is bordered by Oracle Road, Stone Avenue, Glenn Street and Grant Road. "There's nothing good about an abandoned house in a neighborhood."
Vacant properties deteriorate quickly, she said. "Even if it's in slight disrepair," she said, "it won't be long until it's in total disrepair."
Tucson police said vacant houses are "absolutely" an issue for them all over the city. The houses are used as teenage hideouts, hangouts for the homeless and drug users, and stashes for burglars' stolen items, said Officer Tamra Thomas, a community resource officer with the midtown division. They can also be stripped of copper and appliances, further damaging the home and area values, she said.
The vacant homes invite burglaries and other crimes in neighborhoods because they attract drug users, and most burglaries have a connection to drugs, Thomas said.
Residents need to watch the vacant houses in their area and call 911 about immediate problems such as trespassing, Thomas said. They should alert authorities to less pressing problems via online forms.
Empty homes, rising weeds
On West Valencia out past Casino del Sol, Star Valley was once the southwest side's symbol of the housing boom. Now it is a capital of the housing bust.
In the Luna Vistas subdivision, houses that once went for $300,000 can routinely be listed for under $100,000. The development, once packed with people, is much emptier, said Joey Villa, who moved to South Providence Drive three years ago.
The house across the street from Villa is vacant, along with the house at the corner and the house across the street from that. Around the corner on South Oakbank Drive is a cluster of homes with signs out front, some for sale, some foreclosures.
"You turn the corner and half the houses are vacant," Villa said. "When we started here, it was packed. Now it's just signs everywhere."
Villa said he hasn't seen widespread vandalism, although arsonists caused up to $20,000 damage at a neighborhood park in August.
Inside the city, in the Roberts Neighborhood south of East 29th Street along South Columbus Boulevard, Norma Laughman said she feels the impact of vacant homes in the area. The weeds become overgrown and trees start to die. Laughman said she doesn't know her neighbors like she used to and the neighborhood association is no longer active.
"It's sad to see our neighborhood go downhill," Laughman said. "We feel like our hands are tied and our neighborhood is deteriorating."
Vacant rentals, too
It's not just homes that are vacant. There are also widespread apartment and rental-home vacancies in Tucson as entire housing complexes have been shut down and boarded up.
Just as homes are selling for historically low prices, Elías said the same is true for apartment complexes, where building owners are being foreclosed upon.
"Apartments are selling at prices I've never seen for my whole career," he said. "Apartment complexes are struggling because rents they can command are low and the vacancies are high."
John Strobeck of Bright Future Business Consultants, which tracks the local housing industry, said many areas with the highest vacancy rates on the Star's map can be attributed to the shuttering of entire apartment complexes. After housing went bust, many low-income workers who lived in those apartments left the area, forcing complexes to close, he said.
Rental homes have also been hit with the same issues as multi-family complexes, Elías said.
Helen Garfinkle, who lives in the Doolen-Fruitvale neighborhood surrounding Doolen Middle School at North Country Club and East Grant roads, said the vacant rental homes have made her neighborhood feel less safe.
One property was used by squatters and vagrants for years until it was recently torn down by the city. Garfinkle said she got aggressive calling the city about the property when she saw 9- and 10-year-old children - small enough that their backpacks looked half as big as them - wander into the house.
There's been an uptick in crime in the neighborhood and her house has been broken into - either successfully or attempted - three times in two years, she said. There are more people on the street, she said, many of whom she doesn't know and many more who look unfriendly.
"I don't like the direction the neighborhood is heading," Garfinkle said. "I know these empty properties are not helping, and they turn into problem properties very fast."
Financing hard to get
Housing prices have crashed to levels not seen in 10 years, and interest rates are at historic lows. But many vacant properties aren't drawing buyers and aren't being filled.
Even if they can afford the payments, fewer people can get financing for a home, Strobeck said.
"You need gold-plated financing in order to get yourself a mortgage," no matter how large, Strobeck said. "There's so much supply because people can't qualify."
Despite a report last week calling Tucson the emptiest city in America because it had the highest home-vacancy rate of large cities for the first two quarters of 2011, Strobeck and University of Arizona economist Marshall Vest said Tucson's plight isn't worse than other places.
And some Tucson real estate professionals said vacancies are not a big issue. Greg Hollman, regional vice president of Coldwell Banker, said the market is working through the inventory of vacant homes quickly and some investors are putting multiple cash offers on properties, an idea contradicted by the Star's analysis.
"It hasn't been a big problem in my opinion," Hollman said.
But Elías said the only people benefiting from the current market are cash buyers who can sweep up properties at rock-bottom prices.
He said the only way to clear the number of vacant houses is for financial institutions to loosen up lending standards, which were too loose during the housing boom and became very strict after the bust.
Housing is the key to getting the economy moving, Vest said, and vacant homes need to be filled before the housing market can stop falling.
"We're going to need to get people in the vacancies to get people building again," Vest said. "Homebuilding has to come back before we see the kinds of growth rates we've grown accustomed to."
Ring of vacant houses
The areas with the most vacant homes run from Sahuarita north and west, skirting the O'odham Reservation and extending to Marana. These boom areas went bust with the housing market.
The housing development west of Casino del Sol was an emblem of the housing boom and now is filled with vacant homes after the bust.
Center city rentals
Many of the areas in central Tucson with the most vacant units feature entire apartment complexes that have been boarded up and vacated.
Green Valley had many more vacant houses in 2000 than in 2010, but that's because of how the census counted vacancies. More seasonal housing was counted as vacant in 2000 than in 2010.
By the numbers
vacancies in 2000
vacancies in 2010
more vacancies in 2010 versus 2000
Nearly one in eight
units vacant in 2010
How we got the story
The Star analyzed U.S. census tract data from 2000 and 2010.
To determine the increase in vacant rentals, the Star added all census-tract data together for vacant, occupied and total units in Pima County.
To map the data, the Star took the total number of vacant properties for each census tract and stripped out the vacant units that were seasonal rentals, second homes, housing for migrant workers and vacant homes that had just been rented or sold. This left mostly vacant rentals, vacant homes for sale, foreclosures and investor-owned homes.
The Star then projected that data using mapping software and coded the census tracts based on the number of vacant properties.
Report problem vacant properties
If a vacant house is causing problems in your neighborhood, report it. Visit cms3.tucsonaz.gov/hcd/code-enforcement and click on "code enforcement." Fill out the online form, or print a form to fax, mail or hand-deliver to the city.
Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at 573-4346 or email@example.com