Special Report

15 American Ghost Towns

U.S. home prices have recovered substantially since the housing crisis. The improvement, however, has been uneven, and in many U.S. cities housing markets continue to struggle. In others, property values and foreclosure rates have actually worsened. In such cases, many homeowners find they have no choice but to abandon their property. An estimated 1.8% of all residential properties in the United States have been flagged as vacant by mail carriers, according to recent data released by real estate data tracking firm RealtyTrac.

To identify the 15 cities with the highest vacancy rates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from mail carriers obtained by RealtyTrac on some 26,000 zip codes. By combining the zip code data, we were able to review housing characteristics for over 5,000 U.S. cities. Indian Rocks Beach, Florida leads the nation with 25.9% of housing units flagged as vacant. East Saint Louis, Illinois rounds out the 15 with a vacancy rate of 10.8%.

According to Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, a high vacancy rate usually means the housing inventory is far greater than the demand for homes — the telltale sign of an unhealthy housing market. With the exception of Indian Rock Beach, Florida, and Brigantine, New Jersey, home values are very low in these cities. In 10 of the 15 cities, the median home value is less than $100,000, in contrast with the national median home value of $176,700.

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Home values have also fallen in these areas. With the notable exceptions of Gary, Indiana and Greenville, Mississippi, 11 of the remaining cities reported double-digit median home value declines from 2009. In six of the 15 cities, the decline since 2009 was greater than 35%.

The likelihood that a home will be abandoned goes up considerably when that home is in foreclosure. Nationwide, one in every 1,147 residential properties is in foreclosure. In nine of the 15 cities, one in fewer than 1,000 properties is in some phase of the foreclosure process. In six, one in fewer than 500 properties is in foreclosure.

The health of these housing markets is ultimately tied to the area’s economic health, which is also often mirrored by demographic changes. “These tend to be cities where people are losing jobs and also cities that have been losing population,” Blomquist said.

Eight of the 15 cities with the highest vacancy rates have also experienced double-digit population declines since 2009. In four, the population shrank by more than 20% over that period.

It is perhaps no surprise that a majority of U.S. cities with the highest vacancy rates are located in the country’s Rust Belt. Many of what were once thriving cities that emerged at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution are now effectively ghost towns. The largest and most famous of these cities is Detroit, Michigan.

Home to about 1.8 million people at the height of its economic strength in the 1950s, only about 700,000 call the city home today. A multitude of factors contributed to the city’s decline. In the late 1960s, for example, many of the city’s white residents moved to the suburbs, contributing to the city’s population decline. Making matters worse, the Motor City was highly dependent on automobile manufacturing. The Detroit auto industry then began to suffer from foreign competition and manufacturing plants opening throughout the rest of the country. Ultimately, the Great Recession starting in 2007 further hurt the industry, and with a tax base that had already been eroding for decades, the city was financially doomed. When Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, it was was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

To identify the 15 cities with the highest vacancy rates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of residential properties flagged as vacant by postal carriers in 26,505 zip codes provided by RealtyTrac. The data were obtained by RealtyTrac at the end of the third quarter of this year. We aggregated these zip code data to the city level by combining housing characteristics for zip codes located in 5,578 U.S. cities. Cities with fewer than 3,000 residential properties were excluded from our analysis. It is unusual for postal carriers to flag vacation homes as vacant. However, the towns where vacated homes were likely second homes and not truly abandoned were also not considered. Foreclosure rates, the percentage of vacant properties with open loans, in foreclosure, and bank owned were also provided by RealtyTrac. Social and economic data, including population estimates, poverty rates, median household income, and median home values are five-year averages through 2013 from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Population and home value changes were calculated from the five-year averages through 2009. These are the latest and most accurate data for the cities reviewed.

These are 15 American ghost towns.


15. East Saint Louis, Illinois
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,958
> Total residential properties: 18,188
> Median home value: N/A

Slightly more than one in 10 of the 18,188 homes in East Saint Louis are unoccupied, one of the highest vacancy rates in the country. Located directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, East St. Louis was a booming city during the Industrial Revolution. However, like many other Rust Belt towns across the Midwest, the mid 20th century brought with it steep economic decline. Recent budget shortfalls have resulted in the layoffs of some city government staff, including the recently hired public safety director and the street superintendent of the Public Works Department. Today, about one out of every 168 East St. Louis homes is in foreclosure.

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14. Harvey, Illinois
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,110
> Total residential properties: 9,325
> Median home value: $85,100

The comptroller of Harvey, Illinois expressed concerns last July that the city’s government would be unable to pay its bills the following month. The Chicago suburb was in the midst of a financial crisis abetted by fraudulent bonds and runaway developers that ultimately resulted in a destitute economy and a lawsuit against the city’s mayor — brought on by the city council. Harvey is running out of more than just money. Since 2009, Harvey’s population has declined by 11.6%. Of all residential properties in the city, 11.9% are vacant and 1.5% are in foreclosure — one of the higher foreclosure rates in the country.

13. Ecorse, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 533
> Total residential properties: 4,275
> Median home value: $50,200

Ecorse is one of seven Michigan cities among the 15 U.S. cities with the highest vacancy rates. At 12.5%, it has one of the highest vacancy rates in the country. As in many other cities in the state, home values are quite low. The typical home in Ecorse is worth just just $50,200, one of the lowest values nationwide. Also like a number of other cities in Michigan and the region, Ecorse has endured a long-term economic decline largely due to its heavy reliance on the manufacturing industry, which has steadily shrank in the United States over the past several decades.

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12. Blairsville, Georgia
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,401
> Total residential properties: 11,214
> Median home value: $102,900

With a typical owner-occupied Blairsville home worth $102,900, the city has one of the highest estimated home values of any ghost town. Still, that value is more than $73,000 below the U.S. median home value. The city is located in the northern part of the state near the Chattahoochee National Forest. Its population has shrunk rapidly recently, declining by more than 22% from 2009 to 2013.

11. Inkster, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,270
> Total residential properties: 9,227
> Median home value: $55,400

In recent years, Inkster’s population has steadily dwindled from 27,360 in 2009 to its current level of 25,215 residents, a 7.8% decline. Despite receiving an emergency loan from the state, Michigan legislators dissolved the debt ridden Inkster School District in 2013 amid a budget crisis. Today, nearly 14% of the 9,227 homes in the city are abandoned. Inkster is located roughly 20 miles outside of Detroit, the largest ghost town in United States. It is also one of seven cities on this list located in Michigan.

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10. Hamtramck, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 2,104
> Total residential properties: 14,645
> Median home value: $46,600

Hamtramck is one of more than a half dozen Michigan cities where at least 10% of residential properties are vacant. Located near the center of downtown Detroit, Hamtramck has likely struggled with some of the worst effects of high unemployment, poverty, and vacancy rates that have plagued the Motor City, including extremely depressed home prices. A typical owner-occupied home in the area is worth an estimated $46,600, one of the lowest median home values of any city in the country.

9. Greenville, Mississippi
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 803
> Total residential properties: 5,565
> Median home value: $77,000

Greenville is located in the Mississippi Delta, a floodplain along the Mississippi River in the northwest part of the state. Once a thriving agricultural and manufacturing center, the Mississippi Delta has lost jobs to foreign competition. Also, for the first time in recorded history, the area’s population has also declined. In Greenville alone, the population has dropped 6.4% since 2009. Like many rural American cities, Greenville’s residents are moving to big cities. It appears they are leaving by choice — less than 0.02% of Greenville homes are in foreclosure.

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8. River Rouge, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 524
> Total residential properties: 3,375
> Median home value: $38,600

In only three of the thousands of cities reviewed is a typical home worth less than one in River Rouge, Michigan. The city’s median home value is just $38,600. The low property values are likely tied to the high vacancy rate, which at 15.5% trails just a handful of U.S. cities. An estimated one in every 675 properties in the city is in some phase of the foreclosure process, versus the nationwide rate of one in every 1,147 properties. In addition, as in most struggling housing markets, River Rouge’s population is declining. The population has shrunk by 9.5% since 2009.

7. Flint, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 9,699
> Total residential properties: 59,767
> Median home value: $41,700

Famously depicted in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger & Me,” which examined the local effects of General Motors factory layoffs, few U.S. cities have a larger share of vacant homes than Flint, Michigan. Nearly one in every six homes in Flint is effectively abandoned. Once home to 114,374 people in 2009, the city’s population has dwindled to its current level of 101,649, roughly an 11% decline. Economic stagnation may not be the only reason people are leaving Flint. There is currently a class action lawsuit against the city for switching to a poisonous and inadequately treated water supply in a cost cutting measure.

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6. Brigantine, New Jersey
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,793
> Total residential properties: 11,071
> Median home value: $383,400

An island city off the coast of New Jersey, Brigantine was hit particularly hard by Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Voted one of New Jersey’s Best Places to Live by New Jersey Monthly in 2008, much of Brigantine sat in disrepair for some time following the storm. Today, 16.2% of all homes in Brigantine are vacant. Since 2009, more than one-fourth of residents have left the dilapidated coastal city.

5. Highland Park, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 2,716
> Total residential properties: 15,278
> Median home value: $42,200

Highland Park is one of many high vacancy rate cities in Michigan. Like a number of other cities with relatively large shares of abandoned homes, property values in Highland Park have fallen dramatically of late. The median home price dropped by over 35% in in the city from 2009 to 2013, one of the largest such declines. The typical home is valued at just $42,200, one of the lowest values in the country.

4. Detroit, Michigan
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 53,873
> Total residential properties: 284,601
> Median home value: $50,400

While large parts of the country have recovered from the housing crisis, progress has been uneven. Detroit, where tens of thousands of mortgage and tax foreclosed homes are auctioned off each year, is among the cities still waiting for an economic windfall. Around 28,500 properties were expected to sell in the latest auction held this fall in Wayne County, which is part of Detroit. The typical home in the area is valued at just $50,400, one of the lowest median home values nationwide. Vacant homes currently account for nearly 19% of residential properties, one of the highest vacancy rates in the U.S. The demand for homes is so low that scrapping building materials is often more lucrative than taking the time to fix and sell a home in the area.

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3. Gary, Indiana
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 6,527
> Total residential properties: 32,074
> Median home value: $65,400

Gary, Indiana is one of only three U.S. cities where the proportion of vacant homes is estimated to exceed 20%. The city’s housing market was left out of the housing recovery. As in a number of other cities with especially high vacancy rates, Gary’s median home value of $65,400 is one of the lowest in the nation. As Blomquist explained, high vacancy rates are usually found in areas where the demand for housing is low — people simply do not want to live there. And as in a majority of the cities on this list, Gary’s population has decreased in recent years. The current estimated population in the city has declined by 17.1% since 2009.

2. Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 689
> Total residential properties: 3,267
> Median home value: N/A

More than 21% of the 3,267 residential properties in Shenandoah have been vacated — the second highest vacancy rate in the nation. Shenandoah is only 15 minutes by car from Centralia, Pennsylvania. In the 1960s, the government offered nearly all of Centralia residents buyout deals due to an underground, 400-acre fire inside a coal mine in the town. Shenandoah relies heavily on the mining industry. While the population decline has not been as dramatic as in neighboring Centralia, the industry’s decline could be tied to the relatively high vacancy rate.

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1. Indian Rocks Beach, Florida
> Vacancy rate:
> Vacant properties: 1,362
> Total residential properties: 5,260
> Median home value: $392,400

Indian Rocks Beach leads the nation with a vacancy rate of 25.9%. The typical home in the city is valued at $392,400, one of the highest median home values in the nation and exceptionally high compared to other cities with the highest vacancy rates. Indian Rocks Beach shares some characteristics with a number of popular vacation cities, where vacancy rates are still relatively high. While some of the homes flagged as vacant in most vacation towns may be second homes, in Indian Rocks Beach most have likely truly been abandoned. The city’s foreclosure rate, for example, is symptomatic of desertion. One in every 263 homes in Indian Rocks Beach is in the foreclosure process, versus the national foreclosure rate of one in every 1,147. In addition, like many other struggling housing markets but unlike the nation’s vacation towns, Indian Rocks Beach’s population has shrunk by nearly 20% from 2009.

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