Every so often, Dwaine Caraway or another southern Dallas City Council member will put on a hard hat, head to an old drug house and glad-hand the media while the National Guard demolishes the building. As pure spectacle, it's quite satisfying. It's a tangible gesture that showcases the city's commitment to eliminating eyesores and reducing crime in economically depressed communities. Plus, it's fun to watch guys in camo smash things.
As a strategy to combat blight, however, it's not terribly effective. Each house that's razed costs the city months of condemnation battles and $8,000 to $17,000 in abatement expenses, legal fees, dumping charges and the like. The city destroyed some 1,600 homes and businesses between 2007 and 2011, but that represents a small fraction of Dallas' rotting building stock.
Eliminating blight requires a more holistic approach, and a more holistic approach requires a better understanding of the problem. It's easy enough to look at a dilapidated house or drive through a sketchy neighborhood and declare it blighted. It's much harder, but also much more useful, to quantify blight and put it on a map.
That's what a quartet of UNT researchers and Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity have done in a new report optimistically titled "From Blight to Light: Assessing Blight in the City of Dallas."
The report itself is a rather dense 99 pages, and many of its conclusions are fairly obvious: Blight is typically associated with higher crime rates and gang activity, for example; minorities, who tend to be poorer, also tend to live in high-blight areas; southern Dallas is much more ravaged by blight than the north.
What's new is that the UNT researchers describe all this in a single number, a Composite Blight Index. This is a measurement, census tract by census tract, of a neighborhood's well-being based on a weighted mix of property-based variables (essentially the number of vacant, abandoned or tax-delinquent properties) and socioeconomic ones (poverty, unemployment, race, etc.).
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The goal of the researchers is to provide policymakers and nonprofits with a tool to help target economically disadvantaged areas and to "spark public discourse to help target interventions that are aimed at recouping delinquent property taxes and unpaid liens." Those two factors together cost the city about $13 million in revenue each year, the report concludes, not to mention the increased costs of code compliance and police protection in high-blight areas.
Plotted on a map, it offers another peek at the intense north-south divide within the city, which is predictable but nonetheless discouraging. Sixteen percent of Dallas is classified as high-blight, the vast majority of which falls south of the Trinity. The researchers' composite blight map is above. It's also interesting to look at the distribution of vacant properties:
And violent crimes:
It's a problem that seems intractable but which must be fixed, or else a huge swath of poverty and blight will continue to tug down an otherwise ascendant city.