How Cities Are Leveraging Data To Reduce Property Vacancy

Posted by Jessie Kwak on February 10, 2016

In Baltimore, a group of 27 city-owned properties on the west side of downtown, known as the Superblock have stood vacant for years in the midst of litigation and delay. The properties occupy a prime location close to downtown, the University of Maryland (Baltimore) and the city’s arts district – yet problems with developers have left the nearly 2.5 acres vacant.

The Superblock is indicative of a larger problem in Baltimore: the city, like many in the US, is riddled with vacant industrial and residential properties after the housing collapse of 2008. As prime targets for vandals and looters, industrial lots can be difficult to secure, and if they’re in a mixed-residential neighborhood they can lead to higher crime and decreased safety in a big way.

The City of Baltimore, along with hundreds of other cities throughout the US, knew that they needed to do something or risk watching their cities dip into further decline. So in May of 2015, the Baltimore City Department of Planning led a bus tour throughout Southwest Baltimore’s industrial neighborhoods. The idea was “to highlight the potential for historic industrial buildings to create new jobs and economic opportunities for Baltimore residents,” and the hope was to retrofit vacant and abandoned industrial properties into workable spaces for small-scale manufacturing, startups, and other small businesses. Essentially, these spaces would be clusters of like-minded businesses coming together under what had once been home to the type of large-scale industry that sustained Baltimore in the past.

In Baltimore, other city-owned properties have been sold to private groups to create apartments, a theater incubator, and retail spaces designed to revitalize the depressed area by combining street-level commercial space with apartments above. These initiatives are starting to show success, and slowly but surely the city is pulling itself out of decline.

Property volume leads to data brain drain

Traditional methods of record-keeping have proven to be ineffective. In Cleveland, for example, the city was tracking demolition inventory on a 3,000+ row Excel spreadsheet that could only be accessed by one person at a time. Besides being a cumbersome system to use, it was also difficult to take a birds-eye view of the data in order to identify the priorities.

Tackling vacant industrial property on such a large scale requires the use of powerful new technology. As budget cuts and limited resources put a squeeze on a city’s ability to deal with the problem, cities need to find more and more efficient ways to handle and organize the vast amounts of data related to properties.

In 2013, NextCity.org reported on an initiative coming out of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good to create a tool for processing data on foreclosures and real estate trends in order to help cities determine whether to demolish, redevelop, or rehabilitate a property. By making it easier to get a handle on the data, the tool would give city managers clearer insight than they had been able to get on their own.

The sheer amount of record-keeping required when dealing with vacant properties – keeping track of a property’s historical data, finding owner information, managing violations – can be overwhelming to short-staffed municipalities. Especially when the property gets caught in the flux of foreclosure and repossession.

Better tools help cities make data-driven decisions

Tools to analyze property data are becoming more and more crucial in cities’ fights against blight – both residential and industrial. One of the most powerful of these is geographic information systems (GIS).

Organizing the information on a GIS map helps make dealing with these properties more efficient, since the maps and their corresponding data can be accessed both in the office and remotely, providing instant cloud collaboration for employees and departments. The visual interface gives users the ability to make smarter decisions and manage with a geographical point of view since it can display the data in custom shapefiles in order to help identify at-risk areas and spot trends.

As for information management, clicking on an individual parcel brings up historical data, contact information, and other associated data. Proximity searches combined with a mail-merge feature let city officials quickly send out notification letters to neighbors.

How GovPilot can help

Need help developing a plan? Our experts are here to assist. Govpilot’s GIS is built to both user-friendly and high-performance. Users will be able to harness the benefits of GIS without the steep learning curve, expensive 3rd party licenses and requisite years of technical training.

As well as being easy to implement, GovPilot also comes pre-loaded with many of the property-specific data sets city governments require, such as assessment records and FEMA flood maps. Get in touch today to learn more.

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