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City of Grit, Part IV: How New Data Informs Blight Policy

Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

After the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007, the number of blight studies across the county grew exponentially. With better information, researchers and local governments began comparing new data sets to get a clearer picture of how to deal with blight.

Those data sets may not be of particular interest to a graffiti artist such as “Paser,” who sprays the black outline of a bird on the side of an abandoned building, then begins to fill in the gaps with blue, orange and red.

But Paser does have some economic concerns. This artwork will set him back about $20 in supplies. Sometimes he has unexpected costs. Like the time he got arrested.

“I did like two days (in jail),” he says, “and then paid a bunch of other money to the court system.”

Determining the costs to taxpayers is not part of his artistic process. Maybe because this property is in such bad shape already, or maybe because he sees graffiti art as beautiful -- a civic good.

But some researchers are now doing a little painting of their own – a kind of paint-by-numbers. Their picture starts with a basic outline of direct costs, such as hiring a crew to clean-up Paser’s graffiti or tearing down this massive derelict property.

Then they’ll use a palette of new data to color it in. The impressive picture that emerges has surprised more than one city government.

“They have no sense of the spillover costs,” says Georgia Tech researcher Dan Immerglock. Several years ago, his groundbreaking study found that the city of Atlanta was spending about $3 million a year on vacant properties. But spillover costs totaled more than $55 million.

Ed Cross, manager of a database called Memphis Property Hub, says that getting the much larger number requires complicated math and holistic insights.

“We’re awakening to this understanding that it impacts health, education, crime, all these things are blight-related if not blight caused,” he says.

Memphis Property Hub ties together a wide variety of factors related to blight. City officials can now see where limited resources might have the greatest impact, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The University of Memphis is working on a similar computer model. This one will predict where blight could emerge, say, by alerting officials to foreclosures or code violations.

Patrick Dandridge, head of Memphis code enforcement, says this data helps to estimate the size of the problem.

“The magnitude of calls we get you would not believe,” he says of the 100 to 250 code enforcement complaints called in every day depending on the season. The city also has to determine how to deal with thousands of abandoned properties.  

“I have a grass-cutting budget of $3 million,” Dandridge says. “And I have a demolition budget of $6 million, so you just do the math.”

Last year, the city maintained more than 35,000 vacant properties. It demolished nearly 700 single-family houses, and five commercial structures. The demolition rate continues at more than one building per day.

Cities across the country have to make similar budget calls, which is why the national beautification group Keep America Beautiful is also working on a blight calculator. It would help cash-strapped cities determine how much different types of blight cost to fix.

“That becomes budget-able,” says Cecile Carson, vice president of litter and affiliate relations. “That becomes ‘whoa, wait a minute, how do we save that money?’”

Now, if you’re wondering how much your neighbor’s un-mowed lawn is affecting your property value, that figure may be harder to come by. Immerglock says that the deep level of information available in databases such as Memphis Property Hub should have limited access.

“My concern (about this data) is that folks who have nefarious purposes will be the ones to get it,” he says.

Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM
The detailed, competed artwork gets the artist's signature.

  These data sets could, for example, invite new forms of redlining, encourage irresponsible land speculation, or depress property values even faster.

So far, the new data mostly has encouraged cities to come up with innovative strategies. Memphis leaders made some organizational changes and budget adjustments. Mayor Jim Strickland says they’ve pursued tougher legal measures, as well.

“An aggressive code enforcement process with a quick tax foreclosure process: over a long period of time we can make it better,” Strickland says.

By “it,” he means everything blight touches, which, according to the data, is the city as a whole.  

NEXT: City of Grit, Part V -- Code enforcement officers hit the streets and send scofflaws to Shelby County environmental court. On our final installment we look at how an aesthetic problem has become a major legal problem. 

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.