SU students to pilot housing blight study in Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE — The City of Cambridge and Salisbury University planning and GIS departments will team up on Nov. 5 to pilot a housing blight study using an application which can eventually be downloaded to tablets and cell phones throughout the community.

Ten students from Dr. Michael Scott’s geography classes and Dr. Amal Ali’s planning classes at Salisbury University will voluntarily work on a Saturday to measure risk variables in residential neighborhoods throughout Ward 3, which will be broken up into five manageable sections. All observations will be taken from the sidewalks, and no information about specific buildings will be published or captured.

“The point of this effort isn’t to point a finger at our individual neighbors. We want to collect this information as it relates to our entire city, and try to shape initiatives that will make a significant impact,” said Associate Director of Economic and Community Development Brandon Hesson. “So far, we’ve talked a lot about blight, not its causes or how it begins, and I think an eventual city-wide data collection effort will help define ‘blight’ and how to actually address it.”

The application was developed by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Planning staff with some support from the Economic Development division. Students will work in pairs to answer questions about residential structures throughout the five sections. Everything from at-risk roofs to deteriorating foundations and crumbling sidewalks will be scored and combined with historical property value trends and vacancy rates to create a score that can be mapped using GIS technology.

Ward 3 was selected because of its density and walkability, which makes it possible to complete in one day, but also because some data of this neighborhood has been captured in smaller area studies by Dorchester County and Morgan State University in its Pine Street Small Area Plan. While those studies have different goals or remain in process, some of the data is similar and will help prove the pilot’s accuracy.

“The goal is to take a more preventative approach to blight reduction. Fixing blighted structures and preventing them will probably require two different plans of action,” said Lasara Kinser, planning assistant. “We know where blight exists, and it’s a priority, but sometimes it is difficult to see all of the various factors surrounding at-risk residential neighborhoods, even when they are right in front of you.”

“We aren’t trying to map blight,” continued Cambridge GIS Coordinator Scott Shores. “We’re trying to determine the cause of it. The application is designed to collect data about neighborhoods. At-risk roofs, deteriorating foundations, crumbling sidewalks combined with historic property values, vacancy rates and other factors will lend a hand in the final analysis.”

Housing blight was selected as the second most important of the City Council’s goals in July. Strengthening the city’s financial health and economic development were rated first and third, respectively.

“We can make an argument that this pilot, and any resulting project, addresses all three of those goals, which is what makes it unique,” said Mr. Hesson. “It’s a blight study on its face, but it’s also a collaborative effort between divisions to chart a path to making real impacts on property values, owner-occupied housing and a more attractive set of demographics to prospective businesses.”

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