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Economic Viability

New Index Provides

First Steps from

Blight To

Light

By Ellen Rossetti

A building with flaking paint surrounded by unkempt grass, a house with leaning walls that needs to be demolished, a foreclosed property — what is urban blight and what is its financial impact on a city?

University of North Texas researchers from the Department of Public Administration — which houses the nation’s eighth-ranked city management and urban policy graduate program — tackled the issue in a study commissioned for Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. They created a composite index that can be used to measure blight not just in Dallas but in communities across the nation, and not just once, but over time.

University Assistance

The UNT study uncovered the areas of blight in Dallas and calculated the costs of urban decay. Habitat officials say the study is a way of raising awareness about the extent of the issue and starting a conversation about improvements.

“We felt very strongly that help needed to come from one of our local universities,” says Jane Massey, director of neighborhood research and revitalization at Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity and a UNT alumna who worked with the team during the course of its study.

“As a nonprofit, we believed a university could tackle this in a completely non-biased way and that it would be clear to readers of the study that we weren’t guiding what the result was going to be. That to me is one of the great beauties of university research.”

The research, conducted by faculty members Simon A. Andrew, Praveen Maghelal, Sudha Arlikatti and Hee Soun Jang, captured attention across the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

It also caught the eyes of researchers and government officials across the country who want to learn more about applying the index to their own communities.

Composite Index

Yong Tao

Department of Public Administration faculty members who created a new way for cities to measure urban blight are, from left, Simon A. Andrew, Praveen Maghelal, Hee Soun Jang and Sudha Arlikatti. Their composite index incorporates physical and socioeconomic indicators of blight.

Photo by: Michael Clements

The team brings strength in statistical analysis from Andrew, spatial analysis from Maghelal, city planning from Arlikatti and knowledge of nonprofits and local government partnerships from Jang. Their first challenge was defining blight and finding a way to effectively measure an issue that could otherwise be considered subjective.

“In evaluating blight, we looked at the key measurements we have to include — the physical and social measurements,” Jang says.

The researchers nailed down seven physical indicators: abandoned properties, vacant residential properties, vacant commercial properties, mortgage foreclosed properties, tax foreclosed properties, tax delinquent properties and demolished structures.

They also identified seven socioeconomic indicators: poverty, unemployment, ethnicity, race, renter household, population and single-parent household.

“The index had to be objective to be replicated, and it had to use public data that is easily accessible and could be used again,” Maghelal says. “Nothing has been developed on the scale of what we’ve done.”

With those 14 indicators, the team created a “composite blight index” that superimposes physical characteristics over socioeconomic characteristics to provide a more complete picture. Since the index uses public information from the U.S. Census, Dallas County Appraisal District and Dallas City Hall, the information can be collected and re-evaluated in years to come, showing improvements or declines in the community.

“Anyone can claim they are looking at blight in a comprehensive way. But they didn’t aggregate it and superimpose it in a way you can visualize it,” Andrew says. “The visualization of a problem — when you can see it — gives it meaning.”

Plus, the index can be adapted to fit various communities, the researchers say.

“You can be flexible on the indicator you use,” Andrew says. “You can adapt it, modify it and put weight into it if you choose to. If you don’t have a vacant property indicator, there are others you can use. That’s the beauty of it.”

Calculating the Costs

In Dallas, the researchers found that 48 of the city’s 350 census tracts are highly blighted. Another 184 are moderately blighted, and 118 are in low-blight areas.

The blighted areas place an economic strain on the city, researchers found. About 41 percent of properties with late taxes were in those 48 high-blight areas, and 49 percent were in moderately blighted areas.

Demolition of properties between 2007 and 2011 cost the city about $1.6 million, and about 47 percent of that cost was attributed to the high-blight areas. Between 2010 and 2012, the city filed $10.2 million in non-tax liens for cleaning or mowing property, securing vacant buildings, demolishing dilapidated structures and other work. On average, 86 percent are unpaid, adding up to $8.79 million.

“It’s a very important study,” Arlikatti says. “We hope policy makers will look at the issue in a different way and use our findings to initiate some targeted decisions for blight reduction.”

The First Step

“We hope policy makers will ... use our findings to initiate some targeted decisions for blight reduction.” — Sudha Arlikatti, associate professor of public administration

Dallas Area Habitat and others are discussing possible solutions as part of a partnership called EPIC (Economic Partners Investing in Communities). Community leaders including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gathered with UNT researchers last fall in a Dallas forum, “From Blight to Light,” to discuss next steps.

Thomas Evenson, dean of the UNT College of Public Affairs and Community Service, which houses the Department of Public Administration, called the study the first step in addressing the issue.

“It may also be the most important step — getting the momentum going,” Evenson said at the event. “Much of our mission is focused on strengthening the community. ... And there isn’t a much better example of that than the blight-to-light initiative.”

NATION’S BEST

UNT’s Department of Public Administration is home to a Master of Public Administration program that ranks among the best in the country, coming in at No. 8 in U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top programs in the area of city management and urban policy. The department also offers a Ph.D. in public administration and management.

Many graduates serve as leaders in local government, federal and state agencies, and nonprofit organizations. More top-level city executives in Texas hold a master’s degree from UNT than any other university. Students seeking M.P.A. degrees have the option of studying emergency management, financial management, local government management, nonprofit management and human resource management.

“It was when I was at UNT that I really came to appreciate the importance and dignity of public service,” says Jane Massey, director of neighborhood research and revitalization for Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity who earned an M.P.A. from UNT in 1979. “We hear so much bashing of bureaucrats and the government. I think we have lost that concept of people being public servants and really working to try to advance the common good — and I learned a lot of that at UNT.”

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