When you only have a hammer, every property is a demolition
Albany’s effort to fight distressed properties was limited by a reactive approach due to incomplete, fragmented data
With BuildingBlocks, the City is able to accurately account for vacant properties and take steps to prevent significant deterioration
The City saves hundreds of hours in property research and expects to save tens of thousands of dollars by avoiding the need for costly demolition by catching decline early
Like many legacy cities, Albany was hit hard by the 2008 crisis, which exacerbated longstanding property distress stemming from a half century of continuous population loss.
City leadership estimated that 10% of all properties were vacant or abandoned, but lacking complete data, had no true account of the scale. Seven different departments and agencies kept vacancy records in siloed systems, and merging those lists with other critical property data would have been a major, costly burden. Compliance with the City’s vacant registry, its sole vacancy monitoring tool, was low. As a result, the City was blind to distress signals until properties became severely deteriorated, at which point the only option was costly demolition. Rob Magee, the City’s Chief Building Inspector, reported, “It was a slow-burn problem, punctuated by mostly failed attempts to try to get compliance with the registry.”
In 2014, Kathy Sheehan took over as Albany’s first new mayor in 20 years. A former City Treasurer with a data-driven approach to governing, she brought in fresh department leads to take on old problems in new ways. Magee was appointed to run the Department of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance (DBRC). His plan to stabilize neighborhoods and reduce blight relied on three priorities: 1) confirm the full inventory of vacant structures; 2) identify the distressed properties before demolition was the only option; and 3) design a holistic, multi-faceted strategy to remediate vacancy on a case-by-case basis. Each of these priorities relied on ready-access to consolidated property information, which is why Albany turned to BuildingBlocks.
By continuously bringing together information from separate sources and online records into a map-based analytical tool, BuildingBlocks gives Rob’s team complete property detail to get ahead of problems.
Sam estimated he, alone, saves 10 to 15 hours a week on research, and he valued just the current productivity increases at $85,000 – $90,000 a year.
Albany native Sam Wells, the Neighborhood Stabilization Coordinator, spearheads DBRC’s approach. With BuildingBlocks, he now has a reliable tally of vacancy as well as indicators like tax delinquency and police incident history, the “vital signs” of each property. He can instantly assess the vacancy risk and level of nuisance, and hone in on properties showing signs of distress at various stages, even absent physical symptoms.
Whereas before it would have taken six months to understand the data, now we can punch in a filter on the map and get the numbers we need to act.