In order to measure success, you need to know where you started. That may seem like a simple statement, but getting a complete picture of something even as concrete as housing quality for an entire neighborhood can be a major project. The Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance (KCNA), a metropolitan area-wide organization that promotes affordable housing and supports local neighborhood groups, and the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) have spent the past five years developing a powerful tool to help neighborhood revitalization groups in Kansas City, Missouri track their progress.
Neighborhood leaders identified the need for a formal tracking system because they were frustrated with not having a method to quantify or prove the need for improvements to the city or other funding sources. They also wanted a way to measure success and demonstrate the changes they had been making on their own. “You can always tell a story,” says Ed Linnebur, director of neighborhood impact at KCNA. “However, funders want a stronger understanding of outcomes. This mapping tool will enable neighborhoods to provide that information.”
Based on what he heard from the local groups, Linnebur created an inventory template for two neighborhoods in January 1997. He shared it with the groups for feedback, and made adjustments based on their recommendations. “I went to those we considered the final users first, because if they didn’t find the inventory useful, there was no point in doing it,” he says. Since then, the tool has evolved and grown more sophisticated, and the city’s Housing and Community Development office has joined the effort. In 2000, a version for use in the whole city was developed.
The inventory has three components: 1) a description of each structure and its use; 2) private property indicators – roofs, foundations and walls, windows and doors, porches, exterior paint, private sidewalks, lawns and shrubs, vehicles, litter, open storage and accessory structures; and 3) public property indicators – sidewalks and curbs in front of homes, street lights, catch basins and street conditions.
The data are gathered through visual inspections by certified inspectors, recruited and trained by KCNA. When completed, the database will contain ratings on the condition of 110,000 housing parcels and the public infrastructure that surrounds them, and will be accessible from the Web. Access to the data will be based on needs and training, and should be available at no charge.
Database users will be able to view ratings, in map form, for a single parcel, a block or a whole neighborhood; they can look at roofs only, or roofs and porches, etc. The housing inventory ratings can also be integrated with real estate data, bank lending information, crime statistics, and census data, equipping neighborhood activists with multi-faceted, reliable data with which to plan, garner resources, and evaluate their work.
Training sessions will be held this fall for neighborhood leaders, who are being encouraged to use the data for strategic planning. The ratings are color-coded, and the goal for neighborhoods over time is to have their maps transition from reds to blues, symbolic of improvements to housing conditions and infrastructure.
In the two neighborhoods where it was piloted, the housing inventory has been put to good use. The “49/63” neighborhood used the inventory to identify vacant properties and work with individual investors to transition them into refurbished, owner-occupied homes. “The housing inventory really tells a story based on highly accurate data,” adds Linda Serrioz, a leader from 49/63.
Bill Hart, D.D.S., a board member of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association, says, “The housing inventory makes it easy to quickly determine our greatest concerns and patterns of distress; we can also visualize patterns of redevelopment.” Blue Hills used data from the inventory to identify 85 problem roofs. The group was then able to secure funds from the city and the support of a volunteer organization to repair them. The neighborhood also took action on several buildings identified as “dangerous.”
The database was a team effort, funded by Kansas City, MO, and the Kauffman Foundation. Doug Bowles and Sara Ballew of the UMKC Center for Economic Information contributed technical expertise to create the mapping function. A new partnership (with some of the same team members) has been formed in Kansas City, KS, and will begin to inventory 27,000 parcels there this fall. As the housing inventory becomes widely available, other neighborhoods will be able to emulate the pilot projects and use the information to strategize, forming new partnerships to produce effective change and measure success.