Vacant house

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How To Help Revitalize Your Neighborhood

April 21, 2021

REALTORS® can be a vital part of a community’s work to address vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties. This point was emphasized by community revitalization experts on April 20 during the National Association of REALTORS® webinar “Using Data to Identify Opportunities,” which is the second session of the association’s ongoing “Policy, Practice, Process: Transforming Neighborhoods through Equitable Revitalization” series.

In a neighborhood with entrenched or systemic problem properties, it’s crucial to get local data to understand the imbalance between supply and demand that is contributing to the deterioration of those properties, said Danielle Lewinski, vice president of the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit focused on property revitalization. Lewinski offered a high-level overview of the steps communities can take to gather the data that will help them breathe new life into struggling neighborhoods.

1. Determine where the problem properties are.

Gather data by asking the following questions:

•    How many vacant structures, vacant lots, or deteriorated structures currently exist?
•    Where are they located?
•    Are their numbers increasing or decreasing?
•    Who owns these properties?

Examine the data:

•    Look at trends. How is the situation changing over time?
•    Look at spatial patterns. Are properties scattered or concentrated?
•    Look at equity threats. Are problem properties disproportionately impacting some populations?

Local sources for data include the tax assessor, buildings department, deeds, utility providers, police and fire departments, and the health department.

2. Determine market conditions.

Gather data by asking the following questions:

•    How quickly do properties sell and for how much?
•    How are properties sold—through cash or financing?
•    Is crime high?
•    Are jobs leaving?

Examine the data:

•    Once again, look at trends.
•    Look at spatial patterns.
•    Look at equity threats.
•    Look at market types. What areas have similarities?

Deeds, the tax assessor, the buildings department, the police department, and area multiple listing services are all potential local sources of data.

3. Determine the future land use vision.

Ask the following questions:

•    What types of jobs and industry do we want to grow here?
•    What types of housing and neighborhoods should the area foster?
•    How will people move around the community—to jobs, housing, and amenities?
•    What will our value proposition be to a business or a resident? What will be our competitive advantage?

A good local source for this information is the area planning department or commission.

One additional valuable local resource is real estate agents, said Lewinski. “REALTORS® have in-depth information on local neighborhoods and can be an essential partner, particularly in understanding local market conditions,” she explained. “They can make valuable contributions to community discussions.”

Austin Harrison, research fellow at Innovate Memphis, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods in Memphis, Tenn., took a deeper dive into what local data gathering involves, sharing insight garnered from the Bluff City Snapshot, a citywide survey of nearly every commercial and residential parcel in Memphis.

The first Snapshot took place in 2015, bringing together over 100 area residents who were paid for their efforts, an app created by a local developer, a collaboration between local government and nonprofits, and surveyor trainings. The last element was employed to teach participants how to conduct a “windshield” survey—an informal survey in which observers drive around the community and report on what they see.

“I can’t stress community involvement enough in a windshield survey,” said Harrison. “No one knows their neighborhoods like the actual residents.”

The information gathered by the first Snapshot led to new strategies to address problem properties in Memphis and to changes in code enforcement for the city. The data also led to the creation of the Memphis Property Hub, an app that curates data related to distressed and vacant properties in the city that can be used by community, nonprofit, and government groups.

A second, more targeted Snapshot was performed in 2020, this time using graduate students at the University of Memphis and LandGrid, a dedicated windshield survey app developed by the city of Detroit.

Innovate Memphis hopes to do additional Snapshots in the future, said Harrison, echoing Lewinski’s sentiment that REALTORS® make valuable community partners due to their extensive knowledge of area neighborhoods and market conditions. “The real estate community can add valuable insight to a windshield survey,” he said. “Anyone who wants to see neighborhoods improve is welcome.”