Skillman Foundation Funds Innovative Technology Effort to Fight Detroit Blight

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mike Gallagher
CMF Editorial Correspondent

Video courtesy of The Skillman Foundation

Combine a pinch of social innovation, mix in a spoonful of rehabilitation and toss in a large cup of monetary stimulation and you have a recipe for eliminating blight throughout the Motor City and beyond.

The Detroit area “chefs” who have now put that recipe to work for the city include the Skillman Foundation, Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit.

What these three partners have conceived and developed is being called by Detroit officials – including Mayor Mike Duggan – one of the most far-reaching and technologically advanced projects ever created to identify, map and eliminate blight throughout one of the nation’s largest metropolitan cities.

A key financial player in the genesis of this game-changing development is the Skillman Foundation which since 1960 has been a leader in helping children, neighborhoods and businesses in some of the most economically challenged areas throughout Detroit. The foundation’s efforts to help Detroit with its pervasive blight problem were enhanced when it teamed up to support the Detroit Blight Authority, an organization created in 2013 by local businessman Bill Pulte.

“Once again the Skillman Foundation has stepped up to the plate and generously helped fund a clearly innovative project that advances and will reduce our blight elimination efforts from years to months here in Detroit,” says Duggan.

Championing this effort is Chris Uhl, Skillman’s vice president, social innovations. It was Uhl who about two years ago met Jerry Paffendorf, CEO of the Detroit- and San Francisco-based Loveland Technologies, a company dedicated to putting America online – parcel by parcel.

“Our company works with governments, neighborhood groups, development and conservation projects to gather and present public information about properties in clearer, more actionable ways,” says Paffendorf. “We love helping people get on top of big problems like blight identification and reduction, foreclosure prevention, the reuse of vacant space and preservation of community assets.”

Loveland’s forte is making public information about properties freely accessible to the public through an online platform called “Why Don’t We Own This?” Through this system, anyone can obtain property data such as ownership information, zoning, tax assessments and more, including tools to communicate with neighbors.

Data Driven Detroit – known as D3 and an affiliate of the Michigan Nonprofit Association – is a statewide organization with a focus on helping Detroit by providing accessible, high-quality information and analysis to drive informed decision-making.  D3 houses a comprehensive data system that includes current and historic demographic, socioeconomic, educational, environmental and other indicators that allows analysts to combine different datasets to help address and find answers to various issues and problems.

The three organizations came together about a year ago when Uhl invited Loveland and D3 officials to a coffee shop to discuss ways they could share their expertise to move forward and expand a then-Skillman effort to eliminate blighted areas within the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. Skillman eventually provided a $100,000 grant to pilot the Loveland/D3 effort in Brightmoor.

A bigger question Uhl and his new partners wanted answered was how to identify, map and demolish blighted, vacant buildings not just in Brightmoor, but throughout the city. That effort included D3 sharing its database expertise and Loveland developing new software and an app called “Blexting” – short for blight texting – that allows for real-time photos and property information to be transmitted by anyone through a mobile device. Using this new technology, the trio successfully completed a test run last summer by creating an in-depth database of all the property in the Brightmoor neighborhood, including identifying every blighted, vacant building.

The test proved so successful, city officials wanted the technology for its newly created Detroit Blight Task Force, a federally backed team tasked with eliminating blight throughout the Motor City.

Armed with the new Loveland/D3 technology, the Detroit Blight Task Force quickly launched the “Motor City Mapping Project”, expanding the Brightmoor effort to now identify all blighted buildings in the city. Skillman provided a $200,000 grant to help that effort, with the other members of the Detroit Blight Task Force funding the remaining costs.

Skillman then awarded a $200,000 grant to fund the Detroit Blight Authority’s efforts to remove non-structural blight throughout Brightmoor’s 14-block area.  Additionally, Skillman provided another $200,000 to the authority as a general operating grant so that additional dollars raised from others could later go directly towards structural blight removal in that area.

“The Detroit Blight Authority plans on having all blight structures removed from the initial 14-block area by late spring and it has received funding to expand the non-structural blight removal for an additional 21 blocks so that eventually we will have 35 contiguous blight-free blocks,” says Uhl.

Today, the Detroit Blight Task Force is also wrapping up its full-parcel survey with more than 385,000 structures now identified. The data obtained will now be crunched through the D3 databases and that information will then be shared in a report due in early April with Mayor Duggan and federal officials.

“We will use that report to help decide the best way to proceed in eliminating blight throughout Detroit,” says Duggan. “This has saved us years of work in our blight reduction efforts.”

 The database will become a living, ever-changing source of information for what is currently happening on any given block in Detroit, shares Krista Jahnke, a communications officer at Skillman.

“If a resident notices a once well-kept property is now abandoned, he/she can update the database with that information herself using Blexting. That's powerful,” says Jahnke.

City officials and Uhl say the first demolition of blighted structures is expected to begin in mid-March in the Brightmoor neighborhood.  Additionally, the new blight mapping software and app have proven so successful, discussions are under way at the Skillman Foundation and its two partners to make it commercially available to other cities throughout the U.S.

Uhl says Skillman trustees are now discussing whether they want to be co-equity investors in that effort, possibly raising funds through Mission Related Investing (MRIs) or possibly through Program Related Investments (PRIs).

Noting the success of the entire social innovation project to date, Tonya Allen, Skillman’s president/CEO says:

“This is a great investment (by Skillman) and the end result is we help children and families throughout Detroit by dealing with the blight issue. It’s a win for everyone!”

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