Blight is a drag on community energy. It is a siphon on city vitality. Blight is a strong deterrent to economic investment and a proven threat to public safety. Blight can be a source of despair or cynicism for people who have witnessed the decline of a particular building or neighborhood over time. Broken windows, piled-up trash, and scorched or stripped interiors of vacant structures have challenged Detroiters every day for decades. This has been a painful reality for the city’s people and has harmed the national image of Detroit.
Eliminating Detroit’s blight will dramatically improve the next chapter of the city’s story, as community activists, faith leaders, designers, artists, greeners, block captains, business owners, individual residents, and organizations of every size and description implement a bold and better vision for the future.
In November 2013, the Blight Removal Task Force, in partnership with Michigan Nonprofit Association, Data Driven Detroit, and Loveland Technologies, began a physical survey to gather property condition data for all 380,000 parcels in the city. The goal of the Motor City Mapping (MCM) project was to create a comprehensive database of detailed information including the condition of each and every property in Detroit. The process is designed to be scalable, repeatable, and real-time to ensure that relevant data will be available for policy makers both now and in the future.
Data was collected via a mobile application in a process nicknamed “Blexting,” (a combination of blight and texting) that built on prior data from the 2009 Detroit Residential Parcel Survey (DRPS). At that time, the 2009 survey was the first of its kind, conducted by the public-private Detroit Data Collaborative, a team effort of the Detroit Office of Foreclosure Prevention and Response, Michigan Community Resources, University of Michigan Ginsburg Center, and Data Driven Detroit. The 2014 MCM survey expanded on the 2009 survey to include non-residential properties.
Over a period of ten weeks, a team of approximately 150 resident surveyors and volunteer drivers were assigned to quarter-mile areas (nicknamed “microhoods”) to document property conditions. The surveyors photographed the front of each property and answered a series of specific questions related to the its condition. The survey feedback included observations on occupancy, lot vacancy, fire damage, presence of dumping and the nature of the use of the property (residential, commercial, etc.). Once the surveyor completed the series of questions, the information was instantaneously uploaded via a live-stream feed to ‘mission control’, where associates performed a quality control check on all data submitted from the field. The full questionnaire is located in the Appendix section of this report.
There are several technical and legal definitions of blight and then there is the daily experience of blight. One trait that is common across all definitions and experiences of blight is that it is caused by neglect. A small problem becomes bigger over time. Without intervention, sooner or later, blight spreads and takes over a block, then a neighborhood, then a district, and then a city. The Task Force’s definition and methodology for classifying property as “Blight” incorporates the concepts of physical blight, economic blight, the public’s interest in protecting the health, safety, and general welfare of people in its communities, and the preservation of property values.
Michigan law defines a “blighted property” as one that meets any of the following conditions as determined by an applicable “governing body”:
Using the State of Michigan’s definition of “blighted property” as a starting point, the Task Force added elements from the Detroit Ordinance governing “dangerous buildings”.
The Task Force definition includes properties that are:
Accordingly, properties that are exposed to the elements, are not structurally sound, are in need of major repairs, are fire damaged, or have essentially been turned into a neighborhood dumping ground, were classified as “blight” by the Task Force.
While the Task Force recognized that there are other aspects that border on any reasonable definition of blight such as graffiti, un-manicured boulevard grass and litter, the scope of this report addresses blight based on the Task Force definition.
In addition to identifying structures and lots that met the Task Force definition of “Blight,” we identified other properties which possessed indicators of becoming future blight (“Blight Indicators”). Properties with “Blight Indicators” are those properties and structures which did not meet our definition of “Blight,” yet, had the following characteristics:
While a small number of these properties may appear in fair condition today, there is a high probability that they will become blighted in the near future and need to be removed. The Task Force recommends the approach of further inspection, data gathering and analysis to determine the appropriate intervention.
The Motor City Mapping field survey identified vacant lots showing evidence of significant dumping that need immediate attention. These parcels are considered an attractive nuisance and therefore meet the Task Force definition of blight.
The Task Force compiled 24 data sets from a variety of public and private sources. The Motor City Mapping team created a comprehensive database merging the field survey observations with 16 of the 24 data sets. The remaining eight data sets were not used to define the Task Force’s definition of blight but will be used in the next phase of the MCM project. For the first time in Detroit’s history, a deep and complete picture of each property in the city is now accessible for strategic, tactical analytics and decision making.
Of the 84,641 structures and vacant lots in need of intervention:
40,077 structures clearly meet the Task Force definition of “blight” and are recommended for immediate removal. Community engagement will be required to confirm removal or otherwise address significant remedial action for these properties.
38,429 structures have “Blight Indicators” and need further evaluation. The Strategic Assessment Triage Tool, discussed in Chapter 5, can be used to guide the evaluation process. The spectrum of interventions includes rehabilitation, removal, or securing.
At least 6,135 vacant lots showed evidence of dumping and need immediate attention. (Given the record breaking snowfall of 2014, the surveyors had difficulty getting an accurate identification of the vacant lot conditions.)
The MCM team identified 40,077 structures that meet the Task Force definition of blight and are candidates for removal. Prior to any building being brought down, it is essential to engage with residents and the community to confirm removal is the appropriate intervention. (Specific outlines for community engagement can be found in this report in Chapter 2.)
Structures that are candidates for removal meet any one of the following criteria:
Reported with Poor or Suggest Demo external condition in the MCM Survey Fire Damaged Listed in the Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department Dangerous Buildings inventory Open to the elements or trespass Significant dumping
Properties in this category meet criteria that are referred to as properties having Blight Indicators and will need further evaluation to identify the appropriate intervention. Structures within this category meet any one of the following criteria: * Unoccupied and/or abandoned * Land Bank & city ownership * Wayne County ownership (including reverter clause) * Sheriff’s Deed * Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac ownership
While these properties may otherwise be considered non-blight (i.e., arguably in good or fair condition) today, based on these characteristics, there is a high probability that they will devolve into Blight in the near future and need to be removed. The Task Force recommends further inspection and data gathering to confirm this intervention approach.
While MCM has collected a robust database of property information, additional factors need to be considered prior to deciding how to intervene on a these specific properties. In addition to getting direct feedback from the community, the Task Force recommends using the Strategic Assessment Triage Tool (SATT) to gather additional information. (The SATT tool is explained in more detail in Chapter 5.)
Properties included in the group of properties with “Blight Indicators” and in need further analysis does not mean that doing nothing is an option. For all of these structures, one of three interventions will be needed: removal, through demolition (utilizing deconstruction in some cases), restoration back to code, or, secure and maintain until a new use can be found.
During conversations with local deconstruction and demolition contractors, the Task Force learned that structures in this category have a high likelihood of resulting in candidates for removal. Primarily, contractors find that rehabilitation is cost prohibitive from a market perspective. While there are circumstances where individuals, government and developers may pay or invest more than the market value to restore a structure, such instances are rare. One example would be a home inherited from a family member which has sentimental value. Another example is when developers are trying to bolster the real estate market in a particular neighborhood. Based on the information gathered, the Task Force assumed that 80-90 percent of properties with Blight Indicators (or approximately 32,000 of the structures in this category) will need to be removed in the near future.
This would result in an anticipated blight removal candidate pool of approximately 72,000 structures (40,077 parcels that meet the definition of blight + 32,000 parcels that represent 80-90 percent of the parcels with blight indicators).
There are a total of 84,641 blighted structures and vacant lots in the City of Detroit.
Based on the collected data, 40,077 structures clearly meet the Task Force definition of “blight” and are recommended for immediate removal. Community engagement will be required to confirm removal or otherwise address significant remedial action for these properties. The Detroit Land Bank Authority has already started this validation process working directly within the Hardest Hit Fund neighborhoods.
An additional 38,429 structures with “Blight Indicators” will need further evaluation. The Strategic Assessment Triage Tool, discussed in Chapter 5, can be used to guide the evaluation process. The spectrum of interventions includes rehabilitation, removal, or securing.
Given the record breaking snowfall of 2014, the surveyors had difficulty getting an accurate identification of the vacant lot conditions. None the less, the data team is confident that at least 6,135 vacant lots showed evidence of dumping and need immediate attention.
More than 14 agencies interact with properties, safety, and public works in Detroit. These groups create rich databases through their daily activities, such as issuing permits for construction or fixing a streetlight. In aggregate, these datasets can paint a detailed picture of what is going on in the city from a host of perspectives. However, each of these organizations has its own practices and challenges in collecting and updating information, meaning that databases are often compartmentalized or locked into the department in which they were created. This situation is not unique to Detroit, but because of the scale of the challenges facing our city there is a pressing need to change the current systems.
The Mayor’s decision to bring many of these agencies together under the Department of Neighborhoods is an important first step toward better coordination. Sharing data effectively is the next step. The Mayor has appointed the first-ever Cabinet level Chief Information Officer (CIO) to lead this effort.
Detroit is suffering from an “information crisis” that has profound impacts on residents. Each city agency has its own proprietary dataset containing information with varying degrees of accuracy. Information is collected and maintained in different ways across different agencies for different purposes, resulting in disconnected datasets. For example, the Detroit Fire Department cannot easily see BSEED’s Dangerous Buildings list, meaning fire fighters often rush into buildings not knowing the structure is condemned. In addition, this information is typically not shared with the general public.
Another complicating factor is that too much information is still collected and stored in paper form. This not only hampers the work of city agencies, but also prevents residents and community groups from providing and receiving crucial information. Manually matching one set of data to another wastes time, resources, and expertise at a moment when funding and specialized personnel have been in short supply. This lack of visibility severely limits the city and its departments ability to prioritize actions and solutions, as well as share valuable information with the general public.
The answer to Detroit’s information crisis is to build a system that facilitates communication and the exchange of information among government departments and residents. The Mayor’s CIO will lead this effort, which includes implementing Phases II and III of Motor City Mapping.
The Motor City Mapping (MCM)survey (Phase I) was the first step in understanding the current conditions of blight in Detroit. The second phase of MCM will allow residents to provide critical information as well as analytical tools to the Detroit Land Bank Authority. This expanded capability will allow city departments and residents to gain visibility and understanding of the city with a depth and breadth never experienced in any municipality.
The Task Force recommends the City and DLBA implement Motor City Mapping Phases II and III. Phase II of Motor City Mapping is the creation of a centralized, public database. This database will contain information from the Motor City Mapping Phase I, plus data from a wide variety of sources, including numerous municipal departments. The project is planned for launch in late spring 2014 and scheduled to be completed in fall 2014.
Phase II has four deliverables:
Phase III delivers an expanded site control dashboard and connects all municipal departments whose functions and responsibilities are associated with real property.
The public dashboard will be an interactive, web-based data exploration tool that is open to the public. It will give residents, academics, community groups, philanthropic organizations, and businesses a deeper understanding of the city than has ever been possible before.
The centerpiece of the dashboard will be an interactive map of the City of Detroit, which will be familiar to users of Google or Bing Maps. Detroit-based Loveland Technologies will use its maps from the website, whydontweownthis.com, as the foundation for Motor City Mapping. Layered on top of this primary map will be parcel-shaped files displaying the boundaries of each property in the entire city. These parcel-shaped files are the building blocks of most public data.
Users of the dashboard will be able to explore the physical aspects of the city through a multitude of publicly available datasets that focus on structure age, recent sale price, current assessments, and ownership information. While all of this information is currently housed within various public records, there has never before been an all-encompassing, intuitive, and easy-to-use platform to access them.
The public dashboard will also serve as a real-time forum for discussion related to property characteristics, history, and conditions. Each property will display a current photo, (similar to Google Street View) along with property data sourced from the Motor City Mapping property survey. The system will be designed to allow residents to update pictures and property information by submitting their feedback on-line. This feedback will be vetted for accuracy and relevancy before being posted to the database. The public dashboard will serve as a critical link between the residents and the City of Detroit.
In addition, the dashboard will serve as a communication platform between city departments as well as related governmental agencies. City departments will post updated information demonstrating recent activities such as location and schedule of demolition activity and upcoming projects.
The Task Force recommends that the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Loveland Technologies work with District Managers to provide training of the public dashboard at community meetings.
A mobile version of the public dashboard is planned for release by fall 2014. The mobile app, named “Blexting” (short for blight + texting), will also allow users to submit photos and property condition information in real-time from the field. This will permit thousands of people to contribute to a shared, visible, and accessible database of individual property characteristics and neighborhood conditions. This open and shared platform will house rich and valuable information allowing for better decision making and prioritization that is light years ahead of today’s crippled process.
Phase II will also include a specific Toolkit within the dashboard allowing the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) to analyze the city’s data in new ways. This technology will enable the DLBA to dramatically improve the management of large-scale projects and its growing inventory of property.
For example, in March 2014 the DLBA began the process of identifying homes for demolition through the federal Hardest Hit Funds program. The Land Bank has been using the data collected from the Motor City Mapping survey and the community to help it make decisions about which structures should be removed. The Toolkit will allow the DLBA to quickly explore and analyze large amounts of data to understand a new range of variables such as utility information and property occupancy.
The Toolkit will feature technology to assist the DLBA to manage large scale demolition operations. Real-time information such as property demolition selection, contractor assignment, and project status will be invaluable. In addition, the toolkit will allow the DLBA to quickly and easily share and move data among numerous partners in a variety of formats. This information can be generated with a click of a button.
Data Driven Detroit (DDD), a local subsidiary of Michigan Nonprofit Association, is dedicated to providing accurate, high quality information to help shape data-driven decision making. DDD will fill the role of Data Manager. DDD’s expertise in data management, their deep involvement with a number of community organizations, and their commitment to transparency make them a critical partner in this endeavor.
A database is only useful when it houses accurate, up to date, complete content. DDD will take on two principal responsibilities; maintaining the integrity of the database, and teaching best practices and data literacy to all those involved, including members of the public.
The data management team will monitor and evaluate the information provided by members of the public through the mobile app and public dashboard. They will also work closely with city departments to help improve data collection processes, increasing efficiency and further enrich the MCM database.
Through community meetings, the team will work with local residents and community groups to promote the collection of information by providing demonstrations and public dashboard and mobile app training.
The Task Force recommends Detroit expand the MCM tool beyond the DLBA to all municipal departments that deal with property. This will allow Fire, Building, Parks, and other departments to understand and communicate detailed real property information. This impressive technology allows city departments to collaborate toward common goals by maximizing limited resources resulting in positive impact across Detroit.
Phase II of Motor City Mapping is the creation of a centralized, public database. This database will contain information from Motor City Mapping Phase I, plus data from a wide variety of sources, including numerous municipal departments. The project is planned for launch in spring 2014 and scheduled to be completed in fall 2014.
Phase II has four deliverables:
Phase III delivers an expanded site control dashboard and connects all municipal departments whose functions and responsibilities are associated with real property.
Keeping the data and the MCM current is paramount to the viability of the entire system. The Task Force recommends that all 380,000 parcels in the City of Detroit be surveyed annually. The more effective way of surveying the entire city would be to allocate the parcels over a 12 month schedule requiring significantly fewer resources to accomplish the goal of annually updating information on each property. There is nothing that compels the simultaneous surveying of all properties during a short period of time. It would be very short sighted to not allocate the relatively inexpensive amount of resources needed to keep the information current.
The Task Force recommends conducting public training sessions (Blexting Boot Camps), led by DDD and Loveland Technologies, which would be integrated into regular community meetings attended by the city’s new District Managers.
Participants will be trained to use the Public Dashboard and the Blexting application. The training will enable participants to read and interpret the Public Dashboard and contribute information to the MCM. Residents who do not own a computer or smart phone will always have the ability to work directly with their District Manager to obtain information from the Public Dashboard and provide information to the MCM.
These blexting boot camps should rotate between districts during the next three to six months. Special, additional boot camps should also be held for community leaders interested in becoming “Blexting captains.” These leaders will be trained to conduct their own classes on Blexting and the Public Dashboard.
Phase II of MCM will allow District Managers to generate in depth parcel and neighborhood related activity reports. The Task Force recommends that reporting be communicated by the District Managers at neighborhood and community meetings on a monthly basis.
Blight is a shared problem among all city stakeholders: city agencies, organizations, private companies, and citizens. The Task Force strongly encourages all stakeholders to share and collaborate non-private information in a visible, open, and real-time environment.
It is imperative the city make a strategic investment in technology and create a philosophy of open and enthusiastic sharing of information among city employees, departments, and citizens.
This mission critical element must be supported from the city’s top leadership on down to not only realize the success of the blight removal initiative but also to achieve a bright future for every neighborhood.