Open Data Fuels a Place-Based Approach to Neighborhood Reinvestments in Baltimore
2021 Certification Level: Silver
By Hayley Kallenberg
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the United States’ affordable housing crisis. Baltimore, Maryland is a case in point: Since January 2020, median sale prices in the city have doubled. As of November 2021, nearly half of Baltimore residents who rent pay more than a third of their income on housing. Cost-burdened families experience greater stress related to food, healthcare and other indicators. Longer term, many Baltimore residents are locked out of opportunities to create generational wealth, contributing to economic inequality.
To address pressing housing challenges, the City of Baltimore is designing interventions customized to neighborhoods’ specific needs. Decisions about how to make these targeted investments are supported by a strong foundation of open data and stakeholder engagement.
“When it comes to solving problems in a community, open data is a critical asset. Open data is in our public trust, in the same way that parks and roads are in public trust. Everyone has responsibility for and can leverage these assets,” says Justin Elszasz, the City of Baltimore’s Chief Data Officer.
Backed by Mayor Brandon Scott, who championed Baltimore’s open data policy in 2016 while in the City Council, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has launched a comprehensive Framework for Community Development that uses data to prioritize place-based interventions. The framework is powered by a community development tool called CoDeMap 2.0 that is based on a geographic information system (GIS) and creates user-friendly data visualizations.
Originally designed as a code enforcement tool in 2015, the new CoDeMap 2.0 — which stands for Community Development Map — was launched in 2020 with an expanded menu of options. The tool now includes bolstered datasets providing up-to-date information about properties throughout the city, including sale, permit, and citation histories, zoning data, rental licensing status, and floodplain information. The data can be drilled down from citywide level to neighborhood, block, and parcel levels, showing foreclosures, open work orders, vacancies, and ownership types. Each neighborhood has a data profile built into CoDeMap 2.0 that pulls from its many integrated data sets.
“This increased transparency across datasets helps staff navigate housing policies and make better decisions about building and neighborhood interventions,” says Kimberly Rubens, DHCD’s acting chief of policy & partnerships. Along with City departments, CoDeMap 2.0 is used by City Council members, nonprofits, businesses, and Baltimore residents. For example, City Council can use the tool to answer at least 40% of the 1,200 constituent service requests it receives annually. Members of the public can upload their own data or download DHCD datasets that were once proprietary.
“Having macro and micro data at your fingertips empowers users, both internal and external, with comprehensive information for the important neighborhood improvement and community development work that is improving quality of life,” Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy says.
Supporting A Range of Targeted Solutions
For the City, CoDeMap 2.0 is an essential asset for development planning, community engagement, demolition planning, and receivership. The tool divides information into five main service groupings: Impact Investment Areas, Major Redevelopment, Community Development Zones, Streamlined Code Enforcement Areas, and Development Division Projects.
“The Impact Investment Areas represent a key component of our Framework for Community Development and a new era of neighborhood investment for the city,” Rubens says. These areas were chosen for their strong community partnerships and proximity to high-value community assets such as hospitals and schools. Selected with equity top of mind, at least 80% of each Impact Investment Area’s footprint is in historically “redlined” neighborhoods. Each area has a working group that brings together community leaders with City staff to plan neighborhood investments based on community preferences.
CoDeMap 2.0 also supports Baltimore’s block-level planning efforts, which are a critical component of the City’s place-based approach to neighborhood reinvestment. By layering data in CoDeMap 2.0, DHCD can identify priority projects with community representatives and select those with the most potential to benefit an entire block. Johnston Square Park, located in central Baltimore, is one neighborhood benefiting from block-level planning. Over the next five years, DHCD will focus operational and capital resources in the neighborhood.
“We are targeting certain blocks in Johnston Square for rehab and homeownership support,” Rubens says. Legacy residents will receive home repair grants and help with estate planning so they can more easily age in place.
Throughout the process, the City has invested in stakeholder engagement, modeling one of the foundational practices recognized by What Works Cities Certification. By holding more than 20 CoDeMap trainings and multiple “lunch and learns” for City Council, educating more than 500 staff, creating a user guide, and recording a 45-minute training video, the City is helping to ensure that everyone can use the platform to meet their needs. These outreach efforts appear to be working: In 2020, the tool had 23,000 internal views and 89,000 external views.
With new updates based on user feedback slated to improve the platform in 2022, the City of Baltimore will keep strengthening CodeMap 2.0 to make data-informed reinvestment decisions that meet neighborhoods’ particular housing needs.
Mayor Scott, who proudly describes himself as a “CoDeMap power user,” views the tool as a basic ingredient for addressing Baltimore’s affordable housing challenges. “For me, it powerfully illustrates how a commitment to open data, paired with community outreach, can deliver real results for residents,” he says. “I firmly believe that if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Data helps us set and track goals, allows us to be transparent, and forces us to be held accountable. CodeMap 2.0 shows us exactly how housing issues vary by neighborhood, so we can design targeted efforts more likely to produce and sustain the kind of change we want to see in our communities.”
Hayley Kallenberg is a writer, documentary film producer and director, and organizational strategist, specializing in media- and storytelling-focused program design.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Baltimore has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities.
Baltimore is one of 33 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.