VOL. 131 | NO. 157 | Monday, August 8, 2016
Memphis Property Hub Using Micro-Level Data to Drive Solutions
By Madeline Faber
The effects of blight, like boarded-up windows and overgrown lawns, are clear to see. While the methods used to track blight are less apparent, an effort is underway to streamline property data so that government agencies and community development groups can tailor solutions at a neighborhood level.
The Memphis Property Hub compiles data from multiple public sources to tell the story of Shelby County’s 351,000 parcels. Every piece of property, whether vacant land or a commercial structure, can be traced with Memphis Light, Gas and Water payments, appraisals from the Shelby County Assessor, foreclosure history and code enforcement infractions. Formerly, interested parties had to search out this information from separate websites and sources.
“It gives us a micro view into our neighborhoods and how they work,” said Ed Cross, who is developing the Memphis Property Hub with blight-fighting nonprofit Neighborhood Preservation Inc.
The micro-level data provided can be a game changer as the planning community continues its trend towards empowering neighborhood-level groups to advocate for the change they need in their own communities.
“What we’ve been doing across the country for the last 40 years is taking these big fixes like urban renewal and just plopping it down on a huge area and hoping those things fix all the problems, but not every solution is going to fix a problem in every neighborhood,” Cross said.
A block with a high rate of owner-abandoned properties may require an extra boost of Neighborhood Preservation lawsuits, he said. An area densely populated by seniors would benefit from a home repair program, while an up-and-coming neighborhood just blocks away would be better served by a down payment assistance program.
The Memphis Property Hub is rounding out its first phase of development, with NPI planning on a full public launch by the end of this year. When complete, anyone will be able to access data on the website’s GIS map, maintained by the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the University of Memphis.
The Memphis Property Hub is a departure from the prevailing way of analyzing data based on ZIP codes, census tract data or even citywide averages.
Cross said that the neighborhood-level data ultimately helps move the development conversation from a place-based solution to a people-based solution.
“Right now, we don’t know our city that well,” he said.
Instead, the Memphis Property Hub is built on 28 neighborhood zones determined by local property assessors. Groups will be able to track the progress of blight abatement in areas with distinct characteristics, like the Fairgrounds, University District and Berclair.
The neighborhood zones were developed by Clean Memphis, a nonprofit that uses the zones to champion local stakeholders to clean up litter. Executive director Janet Boscarino said that since Clean Memphis adopted the neighborhood zone model, she’s noticed greater organization and collaboration.
“It moves to create that old sense of neighborhood and connectivity, and I think that's ultimately how we’ll make a shift in moving Memphis forward,” Boscarino said.
In partnership with the Greater Memphis Chamber, corporate partners have adopted individual Clean Memphis neighborhood zones. Boscarino said they feel a greater responsibility to an area identified by neighborhood character rather than a blind ZIP code.
With the Memphis Property Hub, NPI hopes to build on that momentum by using the neighborhood zones as starting points for systematic community engagement to tackle blighted properties.
After the Memphis Property Hub is up and running, the group will add on additional neighborhood zone indicators that are related to blight, like crime, health, educational attainment and poverty. By early next year, Neighborhood Preservation Inc. hopes to launch a blighted property dashboard that will track the economic costs of blight to business and government.
Justin Entzminger, director of Innovate Memphis, said that his organization will be working with government agencies to uncover how the Memphis Property Hub could best be used to drive policy and meaningful change, especially in the department of code enforcement.
“It gives them a more holistic picture for a property,” Entzminger said. “If they can see that the utilities haven’t been on for months and months and the owner is out of state, that leads them to a different strategy than what they would pursue if a property was owner occupied.”
He said that the most valuable element of the Memphis Property Hub and its predecessor, the Bluff City Snapshot, is that these data-driven initiatives give blight a hard definition. It can be measured and tracked and therefore, uprooted.