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Kansas City Takes Data-Driven Approach to Addressing Blight

The Abandoned to Vacant project, a collaboration between the city and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, uses open data to map abandoned houses and give potential buyers a sense of the surrounding neighborhood.

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data, and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore the Abandoned to Vibrant project out of Kansas City, Mo., which is helping to address abandoned housing issues in the region.

MetroLab’s Ben Levine and Stefania Di Mauro-Nava spoke with Jim DeLisle, director of Academic Real Estate Programs and associate professor of Real Estate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), and Brent Never, associate professor of Public Affairs at UMKC, to learn more.

Stefania Di Mauro-Nava: Could you please describe what the Abandoned to Vibrant project is? Who is involved in this effort?

Brent Never: The Abandoned to Vibrant (A2V) project, led by associate professor Jim DeLisle and me at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), addressed a fundamental issue for Kansas City, as well as many other U.S. cities: large concentrations of abandoned housing, often located in disadvantaged communities. Kansas City, Mo., has over 10,000 abandoned houses in addition to thousands of vacant lots, creating neighborhoods that have been hollowed out from the inside. Neighbors worry about the crime and blight that seem to go together.

The genesis of this project was in early 2016, through UMKC’s Law, Technology and Public Policy course, of which Dr. DeLisle is a co-instructor. In collaboration with other faculty and community mentors and activists (including, among others, Paul Barham, captain of Code for KC, the local chapter of Code for America), they coached interdisciplinary student teams in that course on a series of projects related to mapping abandoned houses and seeking to renovate them through the Land Bank of Kansas City, Mo.

A2V, which complemented the Vacant to Vibrant initiative sponsored by the United Neighborhood Initiative (UNI) and supported by Code for KC volunteers and UMKC teams, was a spin-off from the course as it became clear that a more intense, integrated, data-driven approach was needed to drive change in an accelerated and efficient manner. This phase began with a meeting the principal researchers (Dr. DeLisle and me) had with the Land Bank. The Land Bank is a quasi-public entity charged with transitioning abandoned housing to productive use; after three years of abandonment, the Land Bank takes possession of the property.

Jim DeLisle: When we started the A2V project in 2016, there were over 1,000 homes in the Land Bank, with many more coming in each month than were being sold. The Land Bank was interested in creating a forward-facing website that would not only present pictures of the house, but also would give potential buyers information about the surrounding neighborhood. We leveraged open data produced by the city on crimes, property violations, 311 calls and building permits to allow buyers to get a full picture of their environs. These efforts leveraged the Alteryx for Good program, providing academic access to an advanced data analytics package that could deal with the many nuances of open data in a big data environment.

To provide partial funding for the development of the actual website through Ron House, a third-party consultant, we drew on a sub-grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that was part of a larger grant awarded to the Legal Technology Laboratory. We also collaborated with Code for KC on several tasks ranging from sourcing data to user experience testing. In the end, much like Zillow, the A2V-Lb website is both a visually attractive and useful tool for all interested in investing in their community.


Exhibit 1: Screenshot of the a2V-Lb Website. Courtesy of UMKC.

Di Mauro-Nava: Can you describe what motivated the city and university to address this particular challenge?

DeLisle: UMKC, as an urban-serving public university, prides itself on substantially engaging the community in a two-way learning process. Abandoned housing is merely one aspect of the problem involving diminished neighborhood capacity, lack of economic development, poor health outcomes, low educational attainment and ultimately low opportunity for disadvantaged residents. Blighted housing is perhaps the most visual indication of a troubled neighborhood; helping families repopulate urban core neighborhoods is one element in engaging this overarching problem. As noted in the images here, housing can quickly turn blighted, which can have negative impacts on neighborhoods and surrounding properties.

On the other hand, blighted housing that is returned to private use through the Land Bank can have a positive impact on the house and the neighborhood, and provide access to affordable housing for buyers.

Never: UMKC has unique academic strength in housing and real estate research, as well as spatial analytics. But perhaps the most captivating issue was brought forth by the executive director of the Land Bank. Many immigrant families had begun buying Land Bank houses. Part of the process is bringing the property up to code in one year, or else it reverts back to the Land Bank. Anecdotally, these families were having a difficult time in selecting the houses that they were most likely to bring up to code, ultimately resulting in them sinking their limited resources into very difficult houses, which then put the Land Bank in the unenviable position of having to repossess the properties. Through our partnership, we are able to level the playing field for those buyers without investment experience, leading to better outcomes for all of the stakeholders.

Ben Levine: What have been some of your initial findings and how have they shaped your understanding of the issue?

DeLisle: In addition to the public-facing A2V website, we have also been using open data to analyze the impacts on neighborhoods of selling Land Bank homes. Unexpectedly, at first glance, we have found that the sale of Land Bank homes does not necessarily improve community conditions; for example, property violations and 311 calls do not seem to decrease for close neighbors with the sale of a Land Bank house.

At the same time, the mere presence of a Land Bank home tends to indicate that a neighborhood has substantial challenges already. We are currently exploring the impacts on neighborhoods of selling homes to investors/flippers versus families looking to reside in the home. While a lot of literature points to the positive effects of single-family residential ownership, the economics in the Kansas City real estate market have tipped heavily towards absentee ownership. One very surprising outcome has been that the Land Bank has effectively sold out of its housing stock due to the boom in investors buying property throughout the city. Through the A2V research process, we have been able to track an astonishing growth in outside investors (some from as far as Dubai, Europe and Australia) in buying vast quantities of distressed housing.

To avoid adding to the problems often associated with speculative investors, the Land Bank interviews potential buyers to ensure they have the commitment and resources necessary to bring the properties up to code in a timely manner. In some cases, the buyers are also vetted by the neighborhood associations who have a vested interest in ensuring properties are adequately maintained after rehabilitation, whether they subsequently are owner-occupied or rental properties. During the duration of this project, Kansas City has engaged in a vigorous debate about how to facilitate affordable housing while at the same time helping disadvantaged communities develop economically. Extension of the A2V analysis is ongoing in an effort to provide important information for public officials.

Levine: How are your findings being used and implemented by the city and/or community?

Never: Our work has not only been important in aiding the Land Bank in understanding rapidly evolving housing dynamics, but it also has been a piece of a vibrant regional commitment to open data. Kansas City, through the stewardship of partners such as the MetroLab Network, the KC Digital Drive and the Mid-America Regional Council, has made a concerted effort to not only lower barriers to accessing public data, but also to generate and disseminate analysis to all interested parties.

The A2V project is one of dozens that have created a vibrant regional data ecosystem predicated on the thoughtful use of data analytics in order to empower citizens and their public officials to address pressing needs. An example of this has been a collaboration with Legal Aid of Western Missouri on their Adopt-A-Neighborhood (AAN) project. AAN curates relationships between urban core neighborhood associations and large law firms to provide legal services to communities; our analytical process has been used to identify the impact of specific legal actions on the fabric of local neighborhoods. It is our hope to continue such relationships in order to leverage our efforts for as many community needs as possible.

DeLisle: In addition to impacting the local community, our outreach efforts have called national attention to the underlying problem and the potential contribution analytics can make in developing solutions. This increase in awareness was punctuated by the 2018 Alteryx Excellence Award we received through our ability to leverage the Alteryx for Good program. We have also introduced Alteryx to our students in the classroom and are using the tool to help future professionals understand how to harness the power of big data analytics to solve complex problems affecting our urban centers.

Di Mauro-Nava: What was the most surprising thing you learned during this process?

Never: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our work has been in discovering how quickly market conditions can change some of the dynamics surrounding Land Bank properties, as well as abandoned housing in general. At the beginning of the study period, the Land Bank was taking in more abandoned housing than it could sell, leading to an ever-increasing backlog of properties that created a strain on resources. During 2017, that situation changed as owner-occupants, rehabbers and investors absorbed much of the existing stock of improved properties, leaving the Land Bank with a surplus of abandoned lots for which there has been little demand to date. Thus, the challenge facing Kansas City and many other cities is what to do with vacant lots located in neighborhoods where conditions and values may not support new construction.

We also learned how outside influences and market failures have fundamentally changed the character of our distressed neighborhoods. For example, a local grandmother has very little ability to call a banker in Dubai in order to have him cut the weeds in a yard, yet the reality is that so much of the distressed real estate has been bought by absentee owners. While political leaders have begun to really dig into the issue, the market for abandoned houses has simply outpaced any public debate. But, while there are upturns in any real estate market, there surely will also be downturns and we stand ready with analysis to help stakeholders understand how to rebuild their neighborhoods.

Levine: Where will this project go from here?

DeLisle: Our next area of interest is vacant lots; over decades, many houses have been demolished, leaving saw-tooth streetscapes. Urban agriculture and pocket parks provide some answers, but we need to empower neighborhoods and other interested parties through effective data analysis to create the type of investment and development that works for them and can help revitalize neighborhoods and increase housing options for residents. We will also continue to collaborate with Code for KC, neighborhood associations, community leaders and colleagues to advance our understanding of the causes and effects of abandoned housing and develop sustainable solutions.

Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.