Blight was a long-standing problem in New Orleans even before Hurricane Katrina ransacked people’s homes and forced tens of thousands of residents out of the city for good, leaving their properties behind. And nature has always contributed to the trouble. An abandoned house in swampy New Orleans deteriorates under creeping vines and overgrown foliage much faster than a blighted property in Detroit or Oakland does.
This is the problem Code for America confronted when it sent a team of civic-tech fellows to work with the city earlier this year. In fact, New Orleans had two challenges with its renewable crop of blighted properties. These buildings were, quite visibly, marring neighborhoods. But the city also had a less visible information problem. Neighbors and community groups wanted to repair or demolish many of these properties—or at least find out where their owners had gone. But the city’s mechanism for reporting blight (or, in bureaucrat-speak: code violations) was messy and complex, involving multiple agencies, and no one could get any information from it.
"This meant that people were constantly poking the city, using whatever channels of communication they had to the city," says Eddie Tejeda, one of the Code for America fellows. "It overwhelmed the city to the point where the city was paralyzed."
Tejeda and the other New Orleans fellows spent months developing the first steps toward an answer: a web application called BlightStatus, unveiled just last week, that allows people in the city to identify blighted properties and track what officials are doing about them. This is admittedly a technological fix, not a hammer-and-nails one. But when actual change is slow to come, information tends to make people feel better.
"When we all came together, we realized New Orleans was a place where we’d be dealing with very difficult issues," Tejeda says. "It was not a place where we’d be able to throw together a cool app and say ‘here’s our contribution.’"
The searchable mapping tool reveals when a property was inspected and just what its problems were (shattered windows, broken gutters, missing roof tiles). Residents can then track open cases all the way through their court hearings, judgment, and resolution. If you report a property, in other words, you can now see what happens to it over time. Ideally, these buildings meet one of three ends: the owner is found and pays for repairs, the foreclosed house goes on sale through the sheriff’s office (hopefully to someone who will repair it), or it’s ultimately demolished.
"Blight," however, is a hazy term. It has one technical definition from the city’s point of view but often another in the language of how we talk about communities. Plenty of eyesores may never enter this legal process. And others that do may fall in and out of "blight" over time. The fundamental issue, though, is that one person’s property impacts a whole neighborhood.
"The part that was amazing to me was seeing houses that had been rebuilt, houses that had been finished, renovated and really looked great, right next to a property that had clearly been abandoned," says Alex Pandel, one of the other Code for America fellows. "It was interesting to me to see how much it affected those neighbors that had put in the work, they repaired their properties, and their neighbors just disappeared."
Throughout the city, Pandel and Tejeda say, people seemed to be relieved when BlightStatus was launched. The site, simple as its interface appears, conveys that city government is tracking residents’ problems, right down to the peeling paint on a house next door. But even more crucially, the app also proposes a new kind of more productive communication between the two groups that moves past angry and frustrated citizens on one end, and a paralyzed city on the other.