As a 2010 NOLA Fellow, I am working with the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC), a non-profit that builds affordable housing in the Central City neighborhood. My job is to develop Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and database tools to track neighborhood conditions and private market and public interventions in Central City.
Right now, NONDC is involved in the monumental and exciting task of rebuilding the old CJ Peete public housing project. The project is transitioning from low-income housing to mixed-income housing with federal HOPE VI funding. As part of that and other ongoing projects, NONDC is building single-family detached houses in the neighborhood with a goal to increase home ownership.
The challenge in improving Central City involves what is officially termed ‘blight.’
Vacant homes, deteriorating buildings, and overgrown lots are targets for dumping and crime. They decrease the quality of life for neighborhood residents and discourage investment. When NONDC builds a house, they anticipate that the high quality of the house, and the commitment of the new owner to maintaining the property, will make a difference for the whole block. The question NONDC faces is: can this impact be tracked?
Mapping current neighborhood property conditions, with special emphasis on identifying vacant and blighted lots, could begin to provide an answer. A map like this would help NONDC describe their own impact on Central City over time, and also help all of the non-profits working in the neighborhood to find candidate properties for investment and rehabilitation.
I spent much of January in New Orleans, where I helped launch and manage the official NONDC winter 2010 property survey. Now their neighborhood data is current. Before we went out into the field, I created a survey form for us to use based on property surveys that had been done in the past. We also met with other non-profits working in Central City to discuss what information they needed so we could incorporate it into the survey. Our categories covered vacancy, building uses, building conditions, and other information that will help paint a broad picture of neighborhood conditions.
NONDC’s three energetic AmeriCorps volunteers, clipboards in hand, helped me survey hundreds of properties. Luckily, they were the sunniest, warmest days in January, and the streets were filled with people in good moods. Neighborhood residents were talkative (“Are you giving out money?” was the going joke) and told us stories about their blocks, their troubles with FEMA, and their thoughts on the CJ Peete redevelopment. It was a great experience that left me with an on-the-ground sensibility about the neighborhood’s strengths and challenges.
Now that I’m back in chilly Cambridge, I am already looking forward to my summer in New Orleans! Until then, with detailed Excel spreadsheets and maps in front of me, I am working to put the data together in a way that will help NONDC identify impact and areas in which to focus their home building efforts.