Citywide GIS will warn of distressed properties
Minneapolis is creating a citywide GIS database that will provide mapping information to city departments, residents and neighborhood associations. When completed later this year, the system will, among other things, track property characteristics to give land use planners early warning of distressed neighborhoods.
The project is the outgrowth of a program begun in 1998 by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota. With the help of Minneapolis-based Neighborhood Planning for Community Revitalization (NPCR), a CURA student partnered with a local neighborhood organization to identify strategies for preventing housing abandonment. (NPCR is a consortium of community-based groups, colleges and universities that matches faculty and students with community organizations to provide research and technical assistance in revitalization projects.)
As part of the research, the student obtained digital neighborhood maps from the city and used GIS software to track factors that could negatively affect housing. For example, she collected data on unpaid property taxes, unpaid water bills and dilapidation, and, in doing so, she was able to assist the neighborhood organization in recognizing properties that were at risk of deteriorating. Armed with that information, the organization could step in and offer assistance — for example, a loan or grant to make necessary payments or repairs — before the property reached the point of being abandoned.
The following year, CURA formed a steering committee, including representatives of other neighborhood organizations, and expanded the project to include five more communities. Today, the project — named Minneapolis Neighborhood Information System (MNIS) — includes 11 organizations representing 18 neighborhoods.
With contributions from the neighborhoods, and with funds from local, private and federal grants, the MNIS staff is providing participants with software (ArcExplorer from Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI) and training in housing issues, mapping and GIS technology. As a result of using the technology, participants are “able to look at a complete picture of their neighborhood,” says Jeff Matson, project coordinator for MNIS.
“They’re able to produce maps that show all of their program activity,” he explains. “They can judge which areas are in greater need than others. They’re able to make better-informed decisions about their housing programs and how to use their resources.”
That is good news for the neighborhoods as well as the city, says Jim Niland, Minneapolis council member. “These neighborhoods were using their tracking systems to identify distressed properties before they became completely unsalvageable,” he notes. “It became clear that was quite a useful tool for the city also — allowing us to work with neighborhood activists to intervene early on those properties, whether it was by acquiring them or rehabbing them.”
Thus the concept of an early warning system took root. “The idea was that we should take some of those ideas from the neighborhoods and put together a citywide system,” Niland explains. “[The council] had been pushing to get the IT staff to put resources, time and money into such a system, and, in last year’s budget, we put in a footnote directing staff to [do it].”
When the system is complete, it will provide up-to-date information for city personnel as well as neighborhood activists. “It will contain information on key indicators like overdue inspection orders and unpaid water bills — signs that a property is starting to slip,” Niland says. “And, in cases where neighborhoods are having to maintain their own databases, they will be able to work off the city’s mainframe.”