When No One's Home

Technology grant helps communities catalog and manage their vacant properties.

A vacant property isn't just an eyesore. It can be a haven for prostitutes or drug dealers, a magnet for arsonists or an accident waiting to happen for a group of curious children. Such a property can also be an expense for the government agency that's responsible for barricading entrances and cutting the grass when the owner won't.

Not to mention the fact that a concentration of empty, dilapidated buildings can sabotage economic development, offering businesses the perfect incentive to locate elsewhere.

At one end of the spectrum, some cities have developed sophisticated technology systems for cataloging and tracking vacant properties, giving these municipalities the information they need to manage such properties. At the other end, some cities' methods are a bit more archaic.

"Some cities still have their property information on index cards," said Jennifer Leonard, director of the National Vacant Properties Campaign (NVPC) at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

Paper property records don't get updated often, and when they do, not everyone gets the news. An employee in a property disposition department looking for the owner of an empty four-family building, for example, might not know that a code enforcement officer has already tracked that property owner down, Leonard said.

"Unless you can integrate all that information in one place and one piece, where everyone has access to updated information," she said, "it's not very useful."

This year, 10 communities received help in managing data on their vacant properties, thanks to the 2006 National Vacant and Abandoned Properties Grant Program, which is co-sponsored by the NVPC, GIS software developer ESRI and GPS technology developer, Magellan. The program provides hardware and software to communities to help develop applications for managing vacant properties.

Each winner received one or more handheld GPS units from Magellan, and ESRI's ArcPad software for mobile GIS and field mapping applications, plus online training in the technology.

The grant is meant to shine a light on the connection between community planning and economic development, and publicize the NVPC.

"We thought that putting together a mobile GIS grant program would be a really good way not only to support the work [NVPC] is doing with many communities and trade associations, but also to promote the upcoming [NVPC] conference," said Milton Ospina, ESRI's economic development and industry manager.

The NVPC will hold its first national conference this spring, and grant recipients are invited to attend and present their applications.

Data Fuels Strategies
The grant program is one example of the kind of technical assistance the NVPC provides to communities so they can organize their vacant and abandoned property inventories. Once they do, the communities can develop strategies for converting once-vacated real estate into productive uses.

For instance, Leonard said, Baltimore plans to acquire at least 5,000 vacant properties and transfer them to private developers -- both for-profit and nonprofit.
With ArcPad running on the Magellan GPS unit, a field worker standing near a building can capture the site's geographic coordinates, and then use a customized onscreen form to record information about it.

"Then you can link it up to a photograph or other GIS records," Ospina said.
Originally 67 communities applied to the grant program, outlining how they would use the technology.

"They have vacant properties that they need not only to identify," Ospina said, "but catalog and inventory and find a way to put them back to proper use."

Applications came from cities with as many as 350,000 residents and as few as 7,000, and from several regional planning agencies, Ospina said. Although the program was promoted mainly to planning and economic development departments, submissions also came from redevelopment, public works, engineering and environment management departments, and mayors' offices, he said.

One mayor whose application rose to the top was Ronnie Harris of Gretna, La. With the grant money, Gretna -- a city of 3.5 square miles and 17,500 residents just across the Mississippi from New Orleans -- will use a single Magellan Mobile Mapper unit and the ArcPad software to collect the exact location of its vacant properties.

Whoever conducts the survey will also capture the location of each building's water and sewer lines and other relevant information, and then transfer that data into the city's existing ESRI ArcView GIS system to create a comprehensive map of vacant properties.

Change is Good
"The first thing we're going to do is identify all of the vacant properties on the map so we can see where the concentration is," Harris said, explaining that the mapping will help the city set priorities when it targets buildings for demolition or renovation. "We want to go into a neighborhood and make an immediate impact. You take two or three properties closely located, and it can turn around an entire neighborhood."

Gretna started working on this kind of blight removal in the mid- to late 1990s, and the program has been very successful, Harris said.

"When we tear down a dilapidated house, we find that the neighborhood immediately picks up in appearance as well as pride," he said, adding that private owners are often inspired by the city's actions to fix up or demolish their own decaying properties.

Harris also expects to use the Mobile Mapper and ArcPad for projects outside the grant's scope -- for example, to map the public utilities infrastructure for better management of repairs.

"That will help us in development of various neighborhoods, to bring them up a notch," he said. City officials have been talking with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about possible funding for GIS data collection.

Although Gretna didn't suffer the flooding that overwhelmed neighboring cities after Hurricane Katrina, storm winds caused major damage, and some residents who left their homes apparently aren't coming back. Meanwhile, an influx of people from more devastated communities has created a huge demand for real estate in a city with virtually no undeveloped land.

Harris doesn't know how many properties in Gretna fell vacant because of Katrina, but the new technology will help the city find out, he said. City officials can try to persuade owners to either sell their properties or turn them over to the community so someone else can use them.

"Affordable housing is extremely tight in the New Orleans market," Harris said.

As new residents in Gretna become active community members, he said, the dynamic of the whole metropolitan area has changed, and city officials feel that change can become an asset for the city.

"We want to be 100 percent occupied and 100 percent fully functional," Harris said, "and with this blighted housing we're not there yet."