Brockton, MA and Lawrence, MA: Problem Property Taskforce
Brockton and Lawrence are two of Massachusetts’s Gateway Cities, former industrial hubs with rich histories that have seen a decline in manufacturing jobs over the past few decades. Leaders in Brockton and Lawrence recognize that these problem properties contribute to blight, attract crime, create unsafe housing conditions, and drain municipal resources. In response, each city established a cross-departmental team to tackle the worst offenders: The Quality of Life Task Force in Brockton and the Problem Property Task Force in Lawrence. Their mandate is to bring together staff to address properties that have an abundance of code violations, consistent activity from the police & fire departments, vacancy, and/or structural issues.
Brockton was once the center of shoe production in the United States, and the “City of Champions”iis the birthplace of boxers Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. And during the Industrial Revolution, Lawrence was an economic engine of America, home to the world’s largest dam & mill facility that powered a booming textile industry. Loss of jobs and population over the last few decades has left both cities with challenging neighborhood conditions typified by vacant, abandoned, and distressed properties.
- Two Gateway cities in Massachusetts were facing a deteriorating housing stock. Unfortunately, addressing problem properties was difficult because of the required amount of cross-departmental coordination.
- The cities needed a way to stop relying on spreadsheets, random property identification, and long meetings.
- Using BuildingBlocks, the city was able to centralize the required information, create alerts to keep everyone informed, and decrease the amount of time spent in meetings.
An effective strategy to address problem properties requires coordination across several departments, including Code Enforcement, Community Development, Police, Fire, Legal, and Tax Collection. The data that’s critical to identify, prioritize, and remedy them is often housed in separate systems used by each of the departments.
That makes working across these silos difficult. According to former Brockton Mayor Moises Rodriguez, “There really hasn’t been coordination between these departments. There are some great things being done, we’re just not coordinating.” A problem property for Code Enforcement might not even be on the radar of the Fire Department, and the Police Department might keep their own list of nuisance properties.
To better share information, both Task Forces relied on spreadsheets compiled by staff in advance of the weekly meetings that manually aggregated any relevant data from across the departments. The meetings consisted of the team covering through each property and hearing an update from the department(s) responsible for taking action that week. Attendees would bounce between different systems to look up information on ownership, liens, violations, and other data, along with photos of the properties.
The manual process was slow-moving, and there was no way to coordinate response when new issues arose mid-week. The Problem Property Task Force in Lawrence struggled to get through the entire list in their weekly 90-minute meetings, frustrating former Mayor Dan Rivera, who called it “the most painful meeting I have.” Warning signs were missed, and valuable opportunities to intervene earlier slipped away. In the words of former Mayor Rodriguez of Brockton, “The left hand doesn’t know what right hand is doing.”
“There really hasn’t been coordination between these departments. There are some great things being done, we’re just not coordinating”
Brockton Mayor Moises Rodriguez
Working with Tolemi, both Lawrence and Brockton joined over 20 other Massachusetts communities to deploy the BuildingBlocks data integration and insights platform. Designed to allow departments to easily share information, the software pulls in records on code violations, permits, police & fire calls, tax delinquency, water shut-offs, and more from any city system into a single web-based tool. It arms everyone on each Task Force with real-time data about each property in their city.
The Tolemi team migrated all the information tracked in the Quality of Life Task Force spreadsheets, along with photos and notes on properties, so the transition was seamless. Moving forward, each city maintains their entire problem property list directly in BuildingBlocks, allowing a single user to set the weekly agenda and flag updates in minutes prior to the meeting without going department to department.
The meetings run more efficiently because the teams no longer have to bounce between different systems when they want to see new records and status changes from the week. All of the information is kept up to date right in BuildingBlocks, which syncs nightly with every departmental system. Even inspection photos are automatically uploaded and tagged to parcels. With these improvements, Lawrence has cut the length of their Problem Property Task Force meeting in half.
During each meeting and throughout the week, the team in Brockton uses the Notes feature to record updates, tag other users, and send reminders about problem properties. So when an issue is flagged by a Code Enforcement Officer that requires the Fire Department or Public Works to follow-up, the right people are alerted immediately and a record is kept of the communication.
Quality of Life Task Force members can also Follow any events that happen on a problem property. Code Enforcement can automatically be sent an email when a specific property pulls a permit or changes hands. Or city users can set an Alert to get an email whenever the status of any problem property changes: new complaints, police incident, property transfer, building permit, tax delinquency, and more.
Beyond the considerable improvements to the existing process for managing problem properties, both Brockton and Lawrence are using BuildingBlocks to be more proactive about identifying at-risk properties. Brockton is setting up an early warning system using Alerts to flag properties that have reached a certain threshold of complaints, police & fire incidents, and/or tax delinquency so that preventative steps can be taken to avoid the downward spiral of deterioration. Lawrence is leveraging Tolemi’s pre foreclosure data to connect at-risk homeowners with resources to prevent property loss and eventual vacancy.