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Parcel data: Key to healthy community

Sarah Treuhaft
Senior Associate
PolicyLink, USA
[email protected]

In the United States, community-based groups play a critical role in urban community development. They revitalise distressed neighbourhoods, organise and provide services to low-income residents and engage in a variety of activities to build healthy, livable communities.

Despite their vital contributions, such groups are generally resource-poor. While financial resources are often a primary challenge for them, information and technology resources are often inaccessible. Geographic data, for example, is absolutely critical for understanding how the neighbourhood is changing and developing strategies to intervene. Yet community groups and non-profits have faced an "organisational divide"-a lack of access to important and new information and communications technology tools that the private and public/government sectors quickly adopted, such as GIS mapping software. Data on individual properties-such as land value, ownership, zoning, tax liens and vacancy status-are particularly valuable for community development groups. Parcels are the most fundamental units of urban land markets. While community development practitioners have always sought parcel data, these data were typically contained in paper records that were stored in separate local government offices. Just the basic fact-finding on properties targeted for acquisition or improvement meant visiting city hall or other offices to examine individual records-a time consuming process that precluded using property data more strategically for planning, decision making and evaluation.

A new era of data democracy has arrived in the United States. In recent years, technologies such as GIS have revolutionised public recordkeeping. Local governments are now creating integrated land information systems that recurrently gather data on parcels from multiple agencies and store the information in a single location. The real value of integrated parcel data systems comes when community organisations and residents are able to access, review and use the information. By virtue of their everyday presence, neighbourhood-based users often possess the most up-to-date information about the ownership, value and condition of properties. When brought into deliberative processes, they can use their local knowledge to verify data, confirm findings and develop more specific research questions. The bringing together of people and technology helps to build systems that are better equipped to create healthier, more equitable communities.

Pioneering organisations and partnerships are turning robust, integrated parcel data systems into powerful tools for guiding community change. A review conducted by PolicyLink and The Urban Institute in 2007 revealed a variety of promising community applications of parcel data systems, such as:

Providing decision support for major initiatives.
In Cleveland, Ohio, an older industrial city that has struggled to overcome population decline and the loss of manufacturing jobs, parcel data formed the backbone of a bold, longterm effort to turnaround the housing markets in six targeted neighbourhoods. Launched in 2004, the Strategic Investment Initiative (SII) focusses community development resources intensively in a few areas that have the best chance of recovering from neighbourhood decline and becoming "regional neighbourhoods of choice." In each of the neighbourhoods, staff members from a community development corporation work with staff from two university institutes, and a community development intermediary (Neighborhood Progress, Inc.), to develop and implement strategies to g-governance In the United States, community-based groups play a critical role in urban community development. They revitalise distressed neighbourhoods, organise and provide services to low-income residents and engage in a variety of activities to build healthy, livable communities. Parcel data: Key to healthy community stabilise and gain control of properties that are in the vicinity of large development projects that they hope will catalyse neighbourhood market resurgence. A parcel data system maintained by the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing (NEO CANDO), provides the neighbourhood teams with the information they need to make decisions about the actions they want to take on individual properties within the target area and enables them to monitor and evaluate their efforts.

Informing foreclosure prevention strategies.
When a wave of home mortgage foreclosures swept through American cities in 2006 and 2007, community groups, funders and government agencies struggled to understand the underlying causes and offered strategies and tools that could enable homeowners to stay in their homes. Housing groups and researchers in Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul have used parcel data to develop "early warning" systems to identify properties at risk of foreclosure and design effective interventions. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, representatives from each city, along with seven non-profit housing development, policy and funding organisations formed the Foreclosure Prevention Funders Council in early 2007. The first step for the Council was to create an information infrastructure on foreclosures. HousingLink, a regional fair housing data intermediary, partnered with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota to collect data on foreclosures. Assembling and mapping the data revealed that the foreclosure challenge was found throughout the region but highly concentrated in North Minneapolis. The Council met biweekly to discuss the findings and developed a policy strategy and expanded to a statewide focus, and the City of Minneapolis is now working with CURA to develop an early warning data system to identify at-risk properties in the city using public data on housing condition, estimated market value and last sale date/price to develop and test a predictive model for foreclosure.

Targeting outreach to low-income home- owners.
Community organisations in Chicago and Philadelphia used parcel data to target services and resources to help low-income owners maintain and improve their homes. Philadelphia VIP/Law Works, which provides legal services to low-income residents and community groups, worked with the Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (CML) at the University of Pennsylvania to understand the "tangled title" problem in the city-cases where the title to a home has not been properly transferred into the name of the person who has an interest in the home. Without clear title, homeowners cannot sell or transfer their property, obtain grants or loans for home repairs or even arrange payment plans for delinquent loans. The CML linked death records with property ownership records to detect properties that might not have been properly transferred following the death of a homeowner and identified 14,000 possible cases throughout the city. Mapping these cases by zip code helped identify where the tangled titles were concentrated in the city.

Monitoring and preserving affordable housing.
The major housing challenge in Washington D.C. is not the weakness of neighbourhood housing markets, as in Cleveland, but their strength: rents and home prices have risen sharply, creating a housing affordability crisis for the city's lower- and middle-income residents. Preserving the city's affordable housing stock was recognised as critical to ensuring that residents benefit from the resurgence in the housing market. A collaborative effort including the city, nonprofit housing groups, The Urban Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation developed in 2005 to create a systematic, data-driven approach to managing the affordable housing inventory in the district. A comprehensive housing database was developed, which was maintained in the NeighborhoodInfo DC data warehouse. Stakeholders began meeting quarterly to monitor privately-owned, federally subsidised affordable rental units whose contracts would expire in

the coming months or years, making them at risk of conversion to marketrate. When the group identifies at-risk properties, they pool their know-how and resources to offer technical assistance to the tenants or to the landlords to ensure continued affordability.

A mix of institutions and technological tools are needed to move parcel data into community development.

Integrated regional parcel data systems
Land information systems that integrate property data maintained by separate administrative agencies and make the information available to users outside of government provide the basic infrastructure for advanced community development applications. Technological advances have enabled the rapid expansion of these systems at very low cost and that trend is expected to continue.

Community data intermediaries
Organisations that gather data relevant for neighbourhood- level analysis and make the information available to community groups and local institutions play an essential role in bringing data and maps into the realm of community building. Robust community development applications of parcel data are almost always guided by community data intermediaries, such as the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development (Cleveland), the Cartographic Modeling Laboratory (Philadelphia), the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (Minneapolis-St. Paul), the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and NeighborhoodInfo DC. In addition to building and maintaining comprehensive systems containing parcel and neighbourhood-level data, these intermediaries form institutional collaborations, partner with communities to develop data applications, pioneer new forms of applied research and train local organisations and individuals on the use of data in community change.

National intermediary networks
Over two dozen community data intermediaries participate in the Urban Institute's National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). Such networks help organisations adopt new information tools and use them effectively through information dissemination, convenings, and other activities.

Data-backed community development initiatives
Community development initiatives that promote the use of data and mapping in programme development, monitoring and evaluation (and provide the resources to support those purposes) help to catalyse innovative applications and effective collaborations.

Public policy supports
Local political support and favourable public policies are essential elements in the development of advanced applications of parcel data.

Investment in infrastructure, institutions and processes that support these advanced community development applications is sorely needed to realise the vast potential that parcel data holds for the community development field. Public and private institutions alike have essential roles to play in bringing emerging local solutions to sufficient scale to have measurable impacts on neighbourhoods, spurring further innovation in systems development and disseminating best practices in the use of parcel data.