(Lancaster, PA ) Lancaster has taken a major step to strengthen two already-successful initiatives that safeguard at-risk properties and monitor the condition of the City’s rental housing stock. The Vacant Property Registry enables City officials to keep tabs on unoccupied homes that can be a magnet for crime and fire, and the Rental Inspection program allows for periodic inspections of rental properties to ensure that landlords and tenants are maintaining safe and sanitary conditions. Noting the success of these initiatives, the City aims to accelerate their impact by taking a more proactive approach.
To advance these efforts, Lancaster has launched a specialized software application called BuildingBlocks, which brings together data from across City departments and runs powerful analysis to identify non-compliant or at-risk properties. By analyzing information on police incidents, fire calls, utility usage, code violations, building permits, and more, City officials can target their efforts at the likeliest candidates and proactively reach out to owners to make them aware of the registration requirements.
Prior to launching BuildingBlocks, Lancaster officials relied on primarily on voluntary registration of owners or landlords, with mixed results. The vast majority of non-compliant owners are simply unaware of the requirements, especially if they are not local, while a small fraction choose to flout the ordinances. In the past, the City typically learned about potential non-compliant properties through neighbor complaints. But even in those cases, the research required to substantiate the claims proved to be a significant burden for resource-constrained City staff.
According to Community Development Administrator Susannah Bartlett, “We used to have to look across four or five different data systems to get a full picture of what was going on at a property. That takes up a lot of staff time that could be better utilized. With BuildingBlocks, it takes us a few seconds to do what used to take hours.”
Lancaster leaders see potential well-beyond just rental and vacant properties. “The BuildingBlocks software is a huge leap forward for my goal of building strong neighborhoods,” said Mayor Danene Sorace. “The ability to layer data block-by-block allows us to strategically focus our efforts on the places that need us most.”
Tolemi is a Boston-based civic technology company that works with local governments nationwide to enable data-driven policy and operations. Their BuildingBlocks application is already being used in Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh, Chester, and Reading, with a number of other municipalities slated to sign up in the next few months. “We’re excited at our growing presence in the Keystone State,” said Andrew Kieve, CEO of Tolemi. “Not only is there a tremendous need to address blight and disinvestment in hard-hit communities, but local leaders across Pennsylvania recognize the need for data & technology to lead the way.”