City seeks new solutions to address urban blight

By ALYSSA WOODEN | April 19, 2018

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Courtesy of JACOB TOOK

Due to population decline, thousands of buildings in Baltimore remain abandoned.

The number of vacant houses throughout Baltimore has increased as its population has declined sharply over the past several generations. This growing number of abandoned homes is often referred to as “urban blight.” 

Baltimore currently uses a variety of methods to combat urban blight, such as demolishing or rehabilitating abandoned homes. For the past three years, the University has partnered with the City to develop statistical analysis tools to identify unoccupied buildings and provide information to make these methods more effective.

Leading this project is Tamás Budavári, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics. Since receiving a grant to apply some of his own expertise to the problem of abandoned buildings, he has been working with Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman to locate areas of urban blight.

According to Braverman, vacant houses can lower the market value of the buildings around them and decrease the quality of life for those living near them.

“It’s enormously difficult to live around vacant and abandoned buildings,” he said. “There’s the possibility that you’re not going to get home insurance on your house. You’re looking at the potential for fires or illegal uses of the property, you could be suffering damage in your house as a result of the dilapidation of the property next door.”

The ultimate goal of Budavári’s project, Braverman said, is to use data on abandoned buildings to help determine what course of action the City should take to address urban blight. 

“The idea ultimately is to better inform the interventions that we undertake and to evaluate how we choose to improve the quality of life in the City,” he said. “What interventions do we design to do that, and how do we evaluate what we’re doing?”

Budavári explained how his project integrates mathematics and technology into the City’s sociological strategies for dealing with vacant housing.

“What we bring to the table essentially is another layer of complexity and mathematical analysis that can be represented on their maps that they use in the decision making process,” he said.

Director of Analytics and Strategic Planning John David Evans, who also works on the project, described the specific data points Budavári’s team uses, including geographical maps of the City and locations of vacant houses. He also looks at water, gas and electricity consumption data to determine how properties become vacant.

“Most of the vacancy in the City is the effect of a longer term set of actions and non-actions,” Evans said. “So using this information — census data — plus different measures of City activity and consumption of property and things like that, we start to get a more nuanced picture of what’s happening.”

Once the City receives better information about urban blight, Evans explained, they can take steps to alleviate the problem. For example, they may sell its properties, issue citations or create affordable housing options.

“Blight arises through a long-term process of disinvestment that happens for a number of different reasons having to do with larger socioeconomic trends,” he said. “All of our interventions that work on blight are informed by the data we produce and also data from other sources that we get access to through the City and through partnerships.”

Budavári, whose background is in astrophysics, explained how the statistical analyses he uses to study stars and planets can be applied to the vacant housing data the City has collected.

“Those tools and skills and mathematical data science techniques really lend themselves to the City problems as well, in the sense that there is a spatial component of houses laid out on the map,” he said. “You can think about individual houses just like you can think about individual galaxies.”

He elaborated on how he has used these techniques to answer important questions about urban blight.

“We have created the tools that we can build on and then realized what data is missing, and now we are... asking new questions and collecting more data,” he said. “Now we are essentially gearing up for this continuous operation where results can be shown and served to the City.”

Budavári believes that this partnership between Hopkins and Baltimore is a benefit to the City. Baltimore residents like Patricia Frank echoed his sentiments.

“I know that there are tensions in the neighborhoods being taken over by Hopkins, but at the same time they employ a lot of people, and they keep a lot of people working here in Baltimore and they bring in money,” Frank said. “So I totally approve of Hopkins getting involved in doing whatever they can to assist the community.”

Braverman also discussed other ongoing efforts to address urban blight, such as Governor Larry Hogan’s Project Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise (C.O.R.E.), a plan to demolish vacant buildings to which Maryland has committed $75 million.

Braverman said that while many see Project C.O.R.E. as simply a demolition project, it has become a balance of demolition and rehab. Maryland State broke its funding up into $35 million for demolition and $40 million for reinvestment. 

Philip Garboden, a graduate student in the Sociology department who is also involved with the project, described the ultimate goals of Budavári’s team. These include helping the City plan for demolitions or targeting funds to rehabilitate abandoned buildings.

“From a public policy standpoint, the goal is really to provide decision support for Baltimore City,” Garboden said. “What can we do so that when the political decisions, the human decisions, the practical decisions, budgetary decisions are being made within the government, they have the best available information?”

Garboden also discussed plans to expand the project in the future. He described an ongoing proposal to raise money to expand to New Orleans, which is also suffering from urban blight, caused primarily by natural disasters. 

“The idea is once we develop tools in Baltimore, we disseminate those to these partner cities,” he said. 

Garboden remains confident that the project will succeed despite challenges. 

“This is much more of an intimate collaboration between us and Baltimore than I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “That’s great because it means that we’re useful, but it means that we’re constantly accountable to the City.”

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