First published in NationSwell.
In 2014, Twiana Odom and her daughter paid rent for a home on Detroit’s east side to a man with a forged deed. When yellow tax foreclosure notices started appearing in her mailbox, addressed to a different name than her landlord’s, Odom realized she’d been scammed. Unable to reach the real owner, Odom asked a nonprofit to bid on the house at a county auction. They pledged up to $3,000, but it wasn’t enough to beat a land speculator who paid $3,200. The new owner promptly served Odom with an eviction notice. When a TV news crew located her this spring, she was living in a van in a nearby empty lot. She said she still cuts the grass in front of her old home, which remains vacant.
The millions of foreclosures that characterized the post-2008 recession can seem like the result of bad luck or tragic circumstances. But a troupe of young mapmakers in Detroit is trying to analyze them as a matter of policy, which can be improved with better data. As a cartographic experiment, started as Motor City Mapping and now known as Loveland Technologies, amateur surveyors knocked on doors to gather info on Detroit homeowners, compared their observations with public records (like whether mail had been delivered in the last 90 days) and uploaded the findings online. The color-coded maps identify properties that are blighted, vacant or in tax arrears. By looking at the hard data, decision-makers could have spotted the damage an 18 percent interest rate on delinquent taxes was causing, or more precisely in Odom’s case, they might have questioned whether booting the family at Buckingham Avenue was worth the unpaid tax revenue.
“The underlying grid of land ownership and taxation was always designed to be public information. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about that,” says Jerry Paffendorf, the 34-year-old co-founder and CEO of Loveland. “Ownership of the country is the most fundamental way that cities operate or don’t operate. [Municipal bankruptcy] is very much because of a drop in property taxes, and our inadequate use of land is the main driver of why police and ambulances don’t show up and why schools close.”
Seeing how data shaped recent housing decisions in Detroit, Loveland Technologies has spent the last two years assembling parcel information for the rest of the country. Out of 3,200 counties, they’ve obtained data from more than 2,000 assessors, accounting for about 94 percent of the places where Americans live. From what Loveland’s 17-member team can tell, it’s the largest publicly available dataset on homeownership ever assembled, and it’s readily accessible to local governments, real estate developers, community land trusts, neighborhood associations, university researchers and concerned citizens, all on one free website. “Title companies and real estate companies that assemble something similar charge absolutely ungodly prices to access it: a quarter million just to look, and if you share anything you’re in big trouble,” says Paffendorf.
Loveland Technologies (its name comes from a dense tome on property law that Paffendorf inherited, inscribed to a lawyer named Susan Loveland) is very different from Zillow, the real estate site that lists real estate prices. Its data can guide taxation, zoning, historic preservation, transportation — anything tied to where people live. Researchers have asked the company to overlay the map with other measurements of poverty, education and health, but Paffendorf believes that there’s already a wealth of insights to be mined from property rolls’ minutiae. “We have a relentless focus on the parcel of property — even on being able to see it, to know what its legal boundaries are — because rights are tied to it,” he explains.
Beyond big-picture planning decisions, Paffendorf hopes the maps also inspire small instances of civic engagement, that users will build maps and share them on the site, creating a Wikipedia-style “virtuous loop.” He envisions urbanites looking up who owns vacant lots and setting up something cool in their place. As more people latch on to the site’s tools, you can expect brighter maps to emerge from American cities: less vacancy, fewer tax foreclosures and a land we can all love.