Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The universe and Baltimore's vacants

“Who would have thought that astronomy has something to do with vacant buildings?” wondered Tamas Budavari, a cosmologist and assistant professor for applied math at Hopkins. Indeed. But here he stood with his Hopkins colleague, Philip Garboden, a guy who combines a bachelor in classic Greek with a masters in public policy and soon with a masters in applied math and a doctor in sociology. Next to the two academics stood Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, all presenting at a workshop of the 21st Century Cities Initiative held at the Baltimore Renaissance Harborplace Hotel at Pratt Street. The workshop topic: The partnership between Housing and JHU on "Smart Blight Remediation".
Michael Braverman (left) with Tamas Budavari and Philip Garboden

“Just like how galaxies cluster in the universe, houses also cluster in the city,” Budavari says. “So if you have a vacant house in a given place, there's a higher probability of finding other ones next to it.”

Will such a geeky excursion in science and statistics help the city fix its problems with its 17,000 or more abandoned houses? 

Data-based policy is all the rage and Mayor Pugh is a great proponent of evidence-based approaches to Baltimore's problems. Braverman, who in addition to his J.D. holds a bachelor degree from Hopkins tried the Hopkins Avenue already when he was Deputy Commissioner.
Vacants and their markets

Demo cost in Baltimore
He understands, how vexing the problem of the empty houses can be, they drag down property values, don't add to the tax base, harbor criminals and the homeless and often are in imminent danger to burn or collapse. While citizens may not distinguish between "unoccupied" and "vacant", for insurances and policy makers, these are different animals. Cities can’t easily tell whether homes are only temporarily "unoccupied", for example, when renters move in and out, sales have not settled yet or buildings are on the market for a long time, or whether they are truly abandoned in cases where owners walk away from mortgages, taxes, maintenance costs which may exceed what the building is worth .The collaboration with Hopkins hopes to not only find these unoccupied homes but also figure out if they’re about to be abandoned, creating a kind of patient prognosis, which like a physical, is supposed to identify problems for possible prevention instead of dealing with the expensive cure once decay has set it in.

"Sometimes I joke around that we're creating glasses that will allow us to see new dimensions of the vacant-building universe," Braverman is quoted on Hopkins' website describing the collaboration. In astronomy and astrophysics scientists can use background radiation to go back and forth in time, in the case of Baltimore's vacants its "big data", i.e. connecting the dots of  data, such as water, gas, and electricity usage, postal deliveries, tax payments and possibly even cellphone use. 
Science in decision making 

Presumably, a high volume of unoccupied houses is a precursor of imminent abandonment. Those principally habitable unoccupied homes would potentially be ideal candidates for a Dollar Home program or for accommodation of the homeless, provided one can come to terms with the owners and the community. 

Commissioner Braverman also used the Hopkins brain trust to give him quick answers on which buildings are likely to collapse anytime soon, notably those who are end-of-row-units with un-braced walls due to missing roof and floor joists which tie walls together. 

Housing also uses fairly sophisticated maps showing market strength. In strong housing markets there are no vacants, in middle markets some, and in distressed markets there are many. Housing targets middle market vacants for code enforcement to achieve that owners either sell or repair. In the distressed markets, the department looks to create clusters for demolition by "firing the owners" (Braverman) since scattered demolition of middle of a row buildings is unsightly and also requires costly work to stabilize newly exposed sidewalls. The highest cost in the creation of demolition clusters is the cost of relocation households stuck in the middle of abandonment, burdened with a home that has no market value, cannot be sold and has no equity to receive loans for repairs.
In spite of code enforcement and closure of cases the
number of vacants increases due to new abandonments 

Braverman and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance (BNIA) have often declared that vacant houses are the best proxy for market strength of a neighborhood, with a fairly low number of vacants tipping a neighborhood over the edge to becoming a weak market. Which begs the question of cause and effect, since one could argue if the vacants drag down the neighborhood or if a down neighborhood creates the abandonment in the first place. Certainly in disinvested communities there is a vicious cycle creating a downward spiral. In spite of this ambiguity, Braverman, his Hopkins partners and also Governor Hogan (project CORE) are intent on strategic demolition as a solution, convinced that demolition will add value. 
Stately but unstable, rowhouse in Harlem Park

New Orleans and Kansas City, KS are closely watching what Baltimore is doing. As fellow Bloomberg Cities they are slated to be next in the 21st Century Cities collaboration. Meanwhile, New Orleans' mayor Landrieu has developed his own common sense strategy against vacant properties which was also presented in the workshop. In a simple evaluation matrix the qualitative question whether a rowhouse "contributes to the character streescape or neighborhood" is a key component in the determination whether a building should be torn down. 

Astronomists don't ask those kinds of questions, but sociologists do. That is where Philip Garboden of Hopkins' Poverty and Inequality Research Lab comes in.  He looks at the human factor and tries to address the bigger questions of equity and social justice which hover large over the final disposition of vacant buildings, the question of relocation of residents, and the evaluation of neighborhoods. In an earlier presentation at the 21st Century Cities symposium, planners from Detroit had described which principle their Mayor's applied to his famously decimated Detroit neighborhoods: "Every neighborhood has a future".  

When it comes to Baltimore's vacants, no data science can replace the ultimate question: What should the future of Baltimore's distressed neighborhoods look like and will each neighborhood have one? 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for additional graphics
NOLA questionaire

JHU  Battling urban blight with big data
Baltimore SUN about the 21st City Initiative
CityLab: Using Astronomy to fight urban blight

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