Restoring the Concrete Jungle: How to Address Urban Blight in 2015

Reducing blight and preventing its spread is best achieved when the solution incorporates the interest and input of active and engaged citizens.

by Maury Blackman / February 6, 2015
9th Ward, New Orleans David Kidd/e.Republic

Dilapidated houses. Vacant lots. Abandoned buildings. Residential and commercial properties damaged beyond repair. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a city in the country that isn’t constantly dealing with the issue. Urban blight has been a problem in the U.S. for, well, generations, and with the Great Recession and superstorms it has only gotten worse in many ZIP codes. Government officials and residents — from The Big Easy to Cleveland, even San Francisco — continually struggle with how to fix the decay that erodes cityscapes, reduces property values and poses safety and security threats for police and firefighters.

Reducing blight and preventing its spread is best achieved when the solution incorporates the interest and input of active and engaged citizens. Whether it’s reporting abandoned houses to local authorities via an app or participating in public meetings to find the best way cities or neighborhoods can utilize vacant lots, solving these problems is best served from the bottom-up. Just as elected officials have a responsibility to address the concerns of their constituents, those same constituents need to be actively engaged on and informed about issues affecting their community.

Technology is helping citizen engagement find a solution to urban decay. And many cities are starting to harness innovative civic tech products to begin to repair and rebuild some of the country’s most severely affected areas.

When the Levee Breaks

Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005. Hundreds of lives were lost. The cost of the damage was more than $100 billion. The storm flooded almost 80 percent of New Orleans’ housing. By 2010, blight affected more than 40,000 properties — almost one-quarter of the city’s residential addresses. Most Americans are aware of the severity of damage from Katrina, but here is something that many people might not know: That same year, the city’s newly elected mayor, Mitch Landrieu, promised to eliminate 10,000 dilapidated properties in three years.

In an effort to alleviate the city’s blight crisis, Landrieu’s office created BlightSTAT, which organized city departments in New Orleans so they could meet and set goals for tearing down or rebuilding properties. BlightSTAT was unique at the time — combining technological resources like real-time mapping tools that allows residents to check the status of damaged properties, and underscoring the need for involvement from NOLA’s citizens.

New Orleans still has a lot of work ahead of it, but the city has made a substantial dent in cleaning up blighted properties. About a year ago, Landrieu announced that his administration had not only met its goal of eliminating 10,000 blighted properties, but had exceeded it, with the total number coming in closer to 13,000.

Pulling Out the Weeds

New Orleans’ housing crisis was exacerbated by one of the worst natural disasters in human history. By contrast, Cleveland’s disaster was man-made — caused by the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

After the foreclosure crisis, Cleveland was left with thousands of vacant and distressed homes throughout the city. On top of being a nuisance, these properties also deter new businesses from moving into neighborhoods. However, Cleveland and the city’s chief building official, Tom Vanover, were able to get out in front of the issue by developing a demolition program to help alleviate many of the eyesores left in the wake of the housing crisis.

Vanover wanted to “let the world know that if you were going to abandon a property in the city of Cleveland, and it’s going to become vacant, distressed and a problem, we’re going to take action and we’re going to tear it down, and we’re going to bill you for it.” Leveraging new technology, Vanover has been able to create records that give the city the ability to track a vacant or distressed property from its first violation notice, all the way to the cost for demolition.

By implementing this new technology, Cleveland has started to recover from its housing crisis. “We’re breaking records for permits and construction [numbers], but to get there you need to pull the weeds,” said Vanover. “We are moving the city to a place where we give more information to the public, are more efficient at tracking our own records and are creating a systematic process.”

High-Tech and Low-Tech Tools for Success

New Orleans and Cleveland aren’t the only cities suffering from urban blight. It’s no surprise that Detroit just put more than 6,000 foreclosed homes up for auction. But even cities like San Francisco and Chicago grapple with the problem on a daily basis. During last November’s election, San Francisco voters passed Proposition F, which gives developer Forest City Enterprises permission to raze an old abandoned shipyard and break ground on a massive redevelopment project.

San Francisco voters regularly reject many similar projects, but Forest City actively engaged the community in the vision for the proposed development over the course of three years. After holding 30 public meetings with more than 10,000 residents, the development company took to heart the concerns of local citizens and lowered the height of the buildings they proposed. On Election Day 2014 the project passed with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, late last year at the Code for America Summit, I heard about a low-tech effort having a big impact on Chicago’s South Side. It’s called the Large Lot Program. The new initiative empowers Englewood property owners to purchase vacant lots plaguing the neighborhood, for just $1 per parcel. To make the process as simple as possible, Large Lots worked with the civic tech company DataMade to bring paper applications online. Now the entire process can be done in a matter of minutes, another example of how civic technology is helping rebuild neighborhoods and spur economic development.

As we’ve seen in cities like San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago, you cannot effectively solve blight problems unless residents are actively engaged in a process. We’ve also seen in Cleveland and New Orleans that technology can play a huge part when it comes to cities tackling the issue.

Technology companies that are dedicated to improving the citizen experience in the digital age are a rapidly growing sector (U.S. Civic Tech Spending to Reach $6.4 Billion in 2015). New civic-minded companies like Neighborland are popping up regularly and are improving the way local organizations, government leaders and residents collaborate on various municipal projects. Firms like BuildingEye and Civic Insight make building and planning information easier to find and understand, while apps powered by the Open311 API make it easy for residents to report community issues like graffiti and blighted properties to local officials.

While we are not able to solve urban blight issues overnight, there is no shortage of citizens who want to make their communities a better place to live. And local governments have a responsibility to better utilize tools that encourage communication between residents and local officials. These tools help empower residents to make a difference in their communities, and ultimately turn places, once crippled by disasters, into successful and thriving communities once again.

This story was originally published by TechWire.