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Data Helps Calculate the True Costs of Blight

A data-rich understanding of properties in distress informs a better plan of attack.

When cities lose population, there’s often a knee-jerk reaction to do something, anything, and do it as fast as possible. The resulting blight is seen as an epidemic that must be stopped, and the faster, the cheaper, the better. Yet a fast but blunt response can do more harm than good, only treating the symptoms without dealing with the root causes, and intervening at the wrong points of the divestment cycle. Cities are now coping with their blight problems by taking pause to build and leverage comprehensive data and technology to help them better deal with blight itself.

Understanding the impacts of blight using data is a great start for cities. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reports that the cost of vacancy, delinquency and foreclosure is much greater than one might expect. Home prices vary depending on the level of homes that are vacant, delinquent in property tax payments for at least one half-year, and/or foreclosed. In high-poverty areas, vacant homes can reduce the price of houses within a 500-foot radius by up to 3.6 percent, while delinquent properties have an impact of up to 12.3 percent. These are major impacts, especially for cities such as Detroit and Baltimore that have experienced major decline over the last decade.

Detroit, possibly the city hit hardest by blight and vacancies, is leading the way in attacking the problem in a data-driven method. Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force, deploying more than 200 people over 14 weeks, has successfully surveyed more than 99 percent of the city’s 380,217 properties. Information collected onsite, including photographs, lot characteristics, condition of structures and the owner, is sent wirelessly to the operations center, where it is checked while the team is still at the property. This information has helped identify candidates for demolition and areas of elevated safety concern.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is addressing the city’s blight issue with the Vacants to Value program, a multi-pronged initiative that seeks whole-block outcomes through strategic application of a variety of tools. The program focuses on streamlining processes to dispose of vacancies and targeted code enforcement to keep transitional blocks afloat — using a citywide GIS-enabled codification system.  

Utilizing data housed in various agencies, the city has cataloged and mapped 3,500 vacant buildings plus 900 buildings interspersed on row-house blocks that require occupants to relocate to allow for whole-block demolition — at a price tag of $165 million. Albeit expensive, this work would eliminate 35 percent of Baltimore’s unmarketable vacant buildings. Focusing on whole-block outcomes, the city developed a pilot deconstruction program in conjunction with the Office of Sustainability to encourage reinvestment in public infrastructure, and focus policing and homebuyer incentives in a targeted approach, block by block. In one neighborhood, the city has reduced vacancies from 308 to 225 in two years and homes are beginning to sell for more than $200,000 — a significant increase from previous prices.

Solving blight problems requires speed, but also high levels of coordination across departments; data creation, collection and analysis; and a re-examination of traditional tools and approaches. Digital tools and data analysis like those I’ve mentioned should allow cities to act more efficiently, solve more goals simultaneously and turn neighborhoods around faster than before.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.
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