Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday July 1st, 2013, 6:45pm

Vacant Building Registries Lack Key Data, New Report Shows

Local municipalities should ramp up vacant–building data collection to help address a problem that continues to ravage Chicago–area communities due to the foreclosure crisis, according to a new report from the Woodstock Institute.
 
The "Deciphering Blight" report looked at the wide–ranging data that 47 local governments in the Chicago six–county region currently collect through their vacant property registries.
 
According to the report, a majority of the local governments kept thorough data on the parties responsible for vacant buildings. And more than half kept track of a property’s unique identifier like a PIN number.
 
But more than half of the municipalities did not collect data on the nature of the vacancy, and many vacant building registries lacked other key information. 
For example, just six municipalities required information on when a building first became vacant, while only 13 vacant building registries asked whether a property was enclosed and secure, the report found.
 
“As municipalities consider strategies to address the vacant buildings problem, collection of accurate and comprehensive data should be a priority,” said Dory Rand, Woodstock's president, in a statement. “This report shows that some communities are missing opportunities to collect data that could enhance strategic planning and redevelopment decisions.”
 
The report noted that only two local governments keep information on the reason for a building's vacancy, while 18 municipalities track pending litigation against vacant properties.
 
Twelve of the municipalities keep details on whether a building was inspected for code compliance, while 10 required data regarding building complaints. Other information that was collected less frequently among the municipalities included details on plans to return a building back to productive use.
 
The report's author, Katie Buitrago, senior policy and communications associate at Woodstock, added that collecting comprehensive data can also strengthen proposals for funding to help combat empty buildings. Additionally, local municipalities and researchers would have a better scope of the problem if local governments required more information, she said.
 
Nearly 339,000 foreclosures have been filed in the Chicago six–county region since 2008, and 136,800 foreclosures have gone to auction, at which point the property typically becomes lender–owned. Typically, the properties are vacant by that time, the report reads.
 
The foreclosure crisis has exacerbated the number of vacant buildings in the area, the report noted. At the end of 2012, more than 69,000 properties in the Chicago six–county region were vacant for more than two years. In comparison, 23,990 properties were vacant for more than a two–year period in 2008, which marked the beginning of the foreclosure crisis.
 
Long–term vacant or abandon buildings are troublesome, because they bring down nearby property values, attract crime and pose significant costs to local governments to maintain and police, Buitrago explained.
 
Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer said the report's findings would help inform the work of the Cook County land bank, which is focused on reducing vacant homes. Ten percent of the county's housing stock is vacant, she said.
 
The Cook County land bank is working on a parcel–level project with data scientists that will turn housing information gathered by DePaul University's Institute for Housing Studies into visual explanations, including maps. The data visualizations, for example, would be able to compare the density of vacancies or buildings that are on their way into foreclosure with nearby crime statistics. 
 
Gainer said the data project will likely be operational by the fall and will be housed at and constantly updated by DePaul.
 
The report also offered some data–collection recommendations, such as structuring vacant building ordinances to promote data accuracy and regularly updated information. 
 
"We know it can be difficult to keep this data updated, especially if all the work has to be done by municipal staff, but there are ways to shift the burden ... to spread the work of keeping the data up to date,” Buitrago said.
 
For example, local governments could require owners to report whether a building has been reoccupied or demolished. Information on a building's condition could also be reported through 311 or mobile apps, she explained.
 
The report also suggested that property owners provide PIN numbers during the registration process that way the life cycle of the building can be better understood.
 
Also, the data should include details on compliance regarding municipal maintenance and fees, which can help make code enforcement more efficient.
 
“Creating a registry that adheres to these principles will help governments and community groups identify policies to address the problem,” Rand said.

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