Data Drives Housing, Planning Decisions in Baltimore

BY STEPHEN GOLDSMITH & MATTHEW LEGER  • January 10, 2022

  • January 10, 2022
  • GIS

This article was originally published in Government Technology.

Comprehensive approaches to complex urban problems require comprehensive data, and the actions of the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) demonstrate why and how. The department oversees permits, code enforcement, development and homeownership support programs. By integrating these responsibilities, housing officials believe they can better understand trends and leverage resources to revitalize neighborhoods suffering from historic disinvestment.

In 2019, DHCD released a comprehensive Framework for Community Development, which outlines an investment strategy that is:

  1. Asset-based, meaning investments are prioritized in areas near high-value community assets such as schools, hospitals, etc.;
  2. Place-based, meaning they are focused on building and strengthening entire communities, utilizing an equity lens; and
  3. Whole-block-based, meaning they are focused on outcomes at the block or neighborhood level and not on individual homes or apartments

“‘Building from strength’ is our tagline,” said Kimberly Rubens, acting chief of policy and partnerships and director of research and analytics for DHCD. With these priorities in mind, the framework identified seven areas spanning 22 neighborhoods across Southeast and Southwest Baltimore, chosen because of their proximity to an anchor for development activity and because they have strong community partnerships.

To support the framework’s goals, DHCD has turned to GIS and location intelligence. Michael Braverman, the head of code enforcement for DHCD at the time, wanted access to a robust GIS tool to be able to leverage information about homes and neighborhoods. Braverman and two of his colleagues developed CoDeMap Classic and then built a 2.0 version with increased mapping options. Together they allow users to find up-to-date information about a property, including sale history, floodplain status, permit and citation history, and rental licensing status, as well as zoning data. Staff now use the platform to inform building or neighborhood interventions such as demolitions.

DHCD has developed a community planning layer on CoDeMap that enables long-term, block-by-block planning directly on the platform. The user-centric 2.0 reforms include thematic grouping of the layers and a range of tools including an application that remembers each user’s preferred GIS layers.

According to Rubens, the CoDeMap platform “allows us to move from the theory of the framework to the practice of actually going into these communities to do the investment work.” The ability to layer data allows DHCD to take insights and discuss priority projects with community representatives in order to identify those with the most potential for positive whole-block outcomes.

Technology facilitates demolition planning, as well as department planning and community engagement and awareness. Community policing takes advantage of mapping to do property-level research for high-profile illegal activities that might be taking place.

The GIS team conducts extensive outreach and training, helping expand the scope and impact of the applications. After the major update in 2020, DHCD trained 500 users in the first few months, and continues to conduct regular trainings to ensure city staff maintain the skills they need to access and navigate the application.

These components of Baltimore’s successes serve as helpful lessons. The project utilized data from various departments and combined it with the end user in mind through map data visualizations that broadly produced insights. Extensive training accelerated use and the ability of city and community officials to access the same understandable data. Rubens emphasizes two other important factors: The data is outward facing, and someone is responsible for making sure it stays current.

Leadership matters, as always. When now-Mayor Brandon Scott served on the City Council, he was trained by Braverman on how to use CoDeMap and is now considered a “super user.” As Rubens noted, “Cities need to make sure we are investing in data systems that are not just functional for a specific agency, but ones that also have interoperability and are not limited to certain users because of their legacy data systems.”
 

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About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.