Saturday, March 13, 2010

Detroit Vacancy Survey – Making Parcel Data Relevant to the Discussion

In February the Detroit Free Press Published an article describing the results of a recently published survey of residential housing in Detroit. The survey was completed by researchers who drove all the streets and completed windshield surveys on the condition of single family residential housing. Quoting from the Detroit Free Press Article ( “A little more than 35% of the city's 343,849 residential parcels are either vacant lots or abandoned shells of buildings. … But the survey also found surprisingly upbeat results in Detroit's most vital districts. The survey found that more than 90% of the city's occupied residential units are in good or fair condition”

The article goes on to discuss the value of this parcel-by-parcel data “In a world where investment decisions and government aid are driven by hard data, the survey offers an unblinking, parcel-by-parcel look of Detroit's condition. Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director of the nonprofit agency Data Driven Detroit, which helped manage the survey, said the parcel data eventually could be merged with other databases -- foreclosures, health and educational statistics, crime patterns -- to allow the most precise imaging ever of a city and its challenges.”

These results are intriguing for Detroit and the parcel-by-parcel information is exactly what was called for in the Land Parcel Data for the Mortgage Crisis (add link to report) report from the May 2009 stakeholders meeting in Washington DC. But beyond the findings that parcel data are valuable to decision makers and an important part of the strategic planning for recovery, these results also raise an interesting question about why was a drive by inventory needed to get this information? The Detroit Free Press Article states “And, in the future, the agency hopes to add advanced mapping software and other tools to its Web site to make the survey results more accessible and useful.” Isn’t this exactly the type of service local government should be providing?

If local governments have automated parcel data linked to assessment rolls, why couldn’t the vacancy and housing conditions be assembled from the accurate and certified assessment data? Why couldn’t this information as well as commercial and industrial property as well as multiple family housing be pulled from assessment files and tied to parcel maps? Given the importance of these findings and the continued property value and mortgage issues facing local economies shouldn’t this data be available everywhere there is parcel mapping?

The other interesting aspect of the results of this survey was that the findings published on the web were generalized to the block level to prevent criminals from targeting vacant houses. But if Google and Microsoft, to name two, are providing street level views of these areas, and criminals can search the web and find this study and determine the block level data, couldn’t they also pull up the street view and look or maybe even just drive by themselves, after all the search radius has been reduced? It is certainly a concern that vacant housing attracts a criminal element but isn’t there an accountability and transparency issue in publishing the locations of the vacant structures? Isn’t this a way for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable? Doesn’t tracking changes in vacant structures (rehab or gentrification of vacant structures), improving vacant lots and tracking condemnation and demolition actions create a visible measureable for public policies?

The enthusiasm and interest expressed by public officials to the results of this survey seem to indicate that providing a web service or even a mobile service on vacancy, condition and tax use classification from an authoritative source that can also show trends and be combined with other parcel based authoritative data like tax delinquency and assessed value is something we all should be considering for our parcel data. It’s one more way GIS and parcel data can be part of the game and part of the discussion.

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