Jackson's Blight Homes Being Addressed with Open Data

From policy to performance analytics management and a public data portal, Jackson, Miss., has ushered in unprecedented progress on blight homes.

JACKSON, MISS. – Blight homes have been a major issue for the Magnolia State capital. Progress had always been slow with a 3-1-1 backlog of a few thousand housing code enforcement requests. According to Councilman Ashby Foote, the city and state currently has about 4,000 abandoned properties that are unsuitable for auction, which neighbors and city residents can now purchase for as little as $10 and up to $2501.

But the city’s pace at addressing blight homes has been completely turned around in about one year. Today, Jackson’s 3-1-1 closure rate for code violations is at 121 percent. That means the city is now cranking through its backlog of blight complaints, which is now 2,489 cases as of today, according to the city.

And while teardowns are just one solution for a myriad of code violations, the city tore down 115 blight homes in 2015 and is on track to surpass its goal of 175 for this year, compared to just five blight houses torn down in 2014, according to Justin Bruce, director of innovation and performance for the city of Jackson.

When Mayor Tony Yarber entered office in April 2015, he spoke about innovation and transparency. He first changed the supervision of Jackson’s code enforcement, and pursued open data opportunities through a grant with Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities program. These results are “unprecedented,” according to Bruce.

Jackson, Miss., is an excellent example of what happens when a city leader makes a full commitment to using data and evidence to focus on what works. Led by Mayor Tony Yarber, Jackson was one of the first cities to be selected to participate in the initiative. The city has made tremendous progress in a few months using these practices to address blight, improve city processes, such as hiring, and set up systems to establish and track progress on city goals. Jackson's outcomes-focused culture is making government more effective and improving residents' lives," says Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities.

Putting Teeth to Code Enforcement

When Mayor Yarber moved the Community Improvement Unit--the department that oversees blight complaints entered through its 3-1-1 system--from the city’s planning department to the Jackson Police Department (JPD), some in the city criticized the move as overburdening police.

While moving the department created a new supervisory role within JPD, code enforcement supervision did not change officers’ daily duties, according to the city.

“We didn’t add a task to the police department and not provide the means and resources to get it done,” says Bruce.

What it did change was perception, and that has helped to turn the tide among the cities many absentee property owners. Just 52.4% of the city’s housing is owner-occupied, according to Data USA. When a property owner would receive a code enforcement letter from the city, it was largely ignored.

“People did not respect the authority of a department that is not as actionable,” says Bruce.

After the code violation calls and letters came from JPD, “the responses shot through the roof,” he says. The city’s progress on blight can be attributed in part to property owners that have become “more receptive to taking care of their own property.”

Putting Policy & Numbers in Place

Jackson became a What Works City in August 2015. The mission is helping cities enhance their use of data to improve services and decision-making and increase transparency. Jackson’s Community Improvement Unit is one department that has showed salient progress as a result of the grant program.

What Works has helped us to enhance, codify and create policy around what we’re doing so it lasts—and prove it through data,” says Bruce.

The first step for Jackson was working with the Sunlight Foundation to develop the first local government open data policy in the state of Mississippi, established by Mayor Yarber’s executive order in September 2015.

Next was JackStat, the city’s performance analytics management system created with the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University. JackStat is producing data on the costs, savings and trends of the city’s progress with blight, among other city goals.

GovEx began worked with each city department to update goals and strategies. Data analysts helped the city refine their work with specific targets and timelines for each departmental goal. Regular JackStat meetings with city directors address performance, challenges and potential solutions, according GovEx2.

Open Data Leads to Blight Budgeting

The city conducted its first data inventory through What Works Cities, and then established the Open Jackson Data Portal, which launched on April 4th with 25 data sets related to the city budget, infrastructure master plan, community improvement projects, public safety, economic growth and mayoral goals. The portal was funded by a grant for open performance through Socrata3.

A Community Improvement dashboard tracks everything the unit does each week—the 3-1-1 calls received, inspections completed, cleanups completed, teardowns, board-ups and all the cost savings.

The cost savings numbers are important for community engagement as well as future budgeting, says Bruce. Cost savings figures are based on contractor estimates. Prior to its What Works Cities engagement, the city streamlined its process for hiring contractors to help with blight code violations and now has a preapproved list.

For each case’s action—board-up, teardowns, grass and weed cases and more, the city is able to calculate its possible cost savings based on contractor estimates. Where possible, the city departments manage blight work, and the city also leverages inmate labor.

With the estimates logged as data, the city can figure out how much it saves when property owners demolish their own properties and when corrections manages cleanup labor.

Getting Strategic with Blight Maps

Bruce says he is hoping that very soon maps created from the portal’s blight data and other city sources, like local crime statistics, will show how crime hot spots and heavy blight correlate. At present, the city is required to address blight properties in the chronological order of 3-1-1 reports—“that spreads the operation out,” he says. With new maps, Bruce is hoping to build a case for prioritizing areas of concentrated blight.

“We want to be able to address [blight] holistically, but we want to explain it,” he says.


1 http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/local/2016/02/16/jackson-selling-blighted-property-10/80459952/

2 http://govex.jhu.edu/what-works-in-jackson-ms/

3 https://www.socrata.com/blog/socrata-foundation-announces-2015-grants/

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