Call it a modern-day tale of two cities.
For decades, Las Vegas, ripe with new construction and economic development, burgeoned into a shimmering urban carnival. Detroit, once the fulcrum of American industry, sagged and rusted under its own weight.
These days, it's the worst of times for both.
Las Vegas edged Detroit for the title of America's most abandoned city. Atlanta came in third, followed by Greensboro, N.C., and Dayton, Ohio. Our rankings, a combination of rental and homeowner vacancy rates for the 75 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the country, are based on fourth-quarter data released Feb. 3 by the Census Bureau. Each was ranked on rental vacancies and housing vacancies; the final ranking is an average of the two.
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Cities like Detroit and Dayton are casualties of America's lengthy industrial decline. Others, like Las Vegas and Orlando, are mostly victims of the recent housing bust. Boston and New York are among the lone bright spots, while Honolulu is the nation's best with a vacancy rate of 5.8 percent for homes and a scant 0.5 percent for rentals.
Still, empty neighborhoods are becoming an increasingly daunting problem across the country. The national rental vacancy rate now stands at 10.1 percent, up from 9.6 percent a year ago; homeowner vacancy has edged up from 2.8 percent to 2.9 percent. Richmond, Va.'s rental vacancy rate of 23.7 percent is the worst in America, while Orlando's 7.4 percent rate is lousiest on the homeowner side. Detroit and Las Vegas are among the worst offenders by both measures--the Motor City sports vacancy rates of 19.9 percent for rentals and 4 percent for homes; Sin City has rates of 16 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively.
"It's a mess," says Vegas developer Laurence Hallier. "Right now, things are just frozen. Everybody's scared."
Hallier, 40, knows from experience. His $600 million Panorama Towers complex was a tremendous success at its inception three years ago. The first of his four planned residential skyscrapers sold out in six months; the second, which opened in 2007, sold out in 12 weeks. As the third tower neared completion last fall, Hallier had sold 92 percent of its units. Then the recession hit, and only half the units ended up closing. Hallier says it will take years to break even, and plans for the fourth tower have been delayed indefinitely.
There are others who've made--and lost--far worse gambles on Vegas property. In 2007, Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva and partner Nochi Dankner paid $1.25 billion to buy a 34.5-acre site on the Strip, with plans to build an $8 billion mega-casino modeled after New York's Plaza Hotel. By November, the value of the lot had plummeted to $650 million--half what they paid for it. Groundbreaking on the casino has been pushed back to 2010, and today, the land may be worth less than the $625 million Tshuva and Dankner borrowed to buy it.
The Plaza debacle is emblematic of the problems afflicting millions of property owners in Vegas and around the country--and can explain, in large part, the origins of America's housing crisis.