Vacant properties can be a huge problem for cities, inviting vandalism and crime while dragging down the property values of the home surrounding them. Since the housing crisis of 2008, many cities have been stuck in a downward spiral of diminishing property values and foreclosures – and the resulting lower property taxes have hampered the city’s resources to deal with the problem.
Since the problem is so pervasive, however, that means many cities are working on the problem – and coming up with innovative solutions. By harnessing data, GIS, and mobile technology, these five cities are making strides towards solving urban blight.
Using GIS analysis to maximize city resources in Baltimore
At one point city officials estimated that the City of Baltimore had about 16,000 vacant buildings, about 75% of which were privately owned. Baltimore isn’t alone in dealing with an overabundance of vacant properties in recent times, and the continuing problem was only leading to further drops in property values, and to urban blight.
In late 2010, Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake initiated the Vacants to Value program. The city used GIS to analyze the market demand for housing, and overlayed this information with a vacant property inventory. This detailed analysis allowed the city to identify emerging markets and make better use of their resources. This allowed the city to invest in “community development clusters” in places where there was interest, a practice which attracted more private development resources and saved the city money.
Using data to create neighborhood-specific plans in Trenton
Earlier in 2015, Trenton, New Jersey was selected as a recipient for the Center for Community Progress’ Technical Assistance Scholarship Program (TASP). Through the program, the Center for Community Progress will work with Trenton to help the city address property blight, vacancy and abandonment. In October, Trenton and Community Progress released their initial report.
The study team used data about foreclosure filings, tax delinquency, homeownership rate, and other indicators to create a total picture of Trenton’s 55 neighborhoods and subareas. This data has allowed city planners to create a diverse set of strategies to deal with each neighborhood uniquely. The city has also made this data available to citizens and community planners, through the website www.restoringtrenton.org, which uses tools like interactive GIS maps to allow citizens to explore the data.
A registration system to provide accountability in Gloucester County
Vacant properties can fall quickly into disrepair, and when these homes are vacated by their homeowners before the bank has gotten possession of the properties, often no one has accountability to deal with them.
Earlier this year, Gloucester County, New Jersey began partnering with nonprofit group Community Champions to establish a database of abandoned properties and register the mortgage holders. This streamlines the process of contacting the responsible party in case of a maintenance issue.
In Atlantic City, New Jersey, one in every 307 homes was in foreclosure as of August this year. It’s one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation – nearly four times the national average. The city is following Gloucester County’s lead, hoping that by establishing a database, the city won’t be left to foot the bill on vacant properties.
Green spaces deter crime in vacant lots in Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has over 40,000 vacant parcels within the city – along with the accompanying drug abuse, dumping, and graffiti problems. Throwing up tall chain-link fences wasn’t working, and so for the last 15 years, Philadelphia has been working to clean these lots and create informal parks instead. (Regardless of who legally owns them.)
The cleaned lots – some 8,600 of them – are maintained by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and local neighborhood groups. Researchers who have studied the effect of these cleaned-up parcels have found that they boosted the value of neighboring homes by 20%, the neighborhood exercise levels went up, and that there was a significant drop in gun crime. The resulting increase in property taxes because of the increased property values has gone straight into city coffers.
Using Instagram to map and prioritize blighted properties in Mobile
Mobile, Alabama had a huge problem. It was estimated that about 16% of the city’s 90,000 housing units were vacant, but no one knew for sure exactly how many properties there were, nor where they were all located. Even if that information had been available, the city still would’ve had no way to prioritize which blighted property needed dealt with most urgently.
The solution? Send the city’s 14 code enforcement officers out through the cities armed with smart phones and Instagram. Every photo would be automatically tagged with the property’s location, allowing the city to view where the largest concentrations of blight were in mapping software. Having a photo associated with each property allowed the city to get a cursory look at how badly damaged the property was.