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Browser tool discloses hidden value of vacant and abandoned buildings

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When is a vacant or abandoned building not just an empty structure? When it has untapped potential just by virtue of where it stands. In real estate, the three major principles are "location, location, location," and many vacant and abandoned structures are jewels in the rough. They may be located near public transportation, or lie within a school district with excellent schools. Maybe they're close to a beautiful park, or there is great shopping nearby.

But how do you determine what amenities and resources are located in close proximity to an empty structure? If you're in Bronzeville, located on Chicago's south side, your answer may soon be as close as your nearest browser or tablet screen. The Hidden Value in Abandoned Buildings (HViAB) tool uses material from the Vacant and Abandoned Building Finder, developed by Derek Eder, along with content developed by researcher, writer, data analyst and policy analyst Audrey Henderson and an API coded by programmer Dan Fehrenbach to visually represent amenities and resources located within a half-mile radius of vacant and abandoned properties located in the area.

Henderson and Fehrenbach developed a rough prototype of the HViAB tool during the Urban Sustainability Hackathon held in October 2012, and sponsored by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a self described "think and do tank" located in Chicago. Their project was one of two runners-up in the weekend-long event, along with a project called Jitney Driver. The winner was a project called Edifice. There were six total entries in the Hackathon.

The HViAB tool takes the concept of "what's nearby" maps one better -- to include features that community group leaders and other stakeholders consider to be vital to the development of where they live. The principle behind HViAB is that even buildings that are dilapidated can have the potential to become vital, financially viable aspects of a neighborhood. According to Henderson and Fehrenbach, the tool is of potential value to housing researchers and policy makers, nonprofit organizations and NGOs interested in developing land trusts and other forms of affordable housing, as well as to commercial real estate developers. Once the database is fully developed, the data itself may become a revenue source.

Henderson chose Bronzeville as the site for the demonstration version of the HViAB tool because of its location near the lakefront and downtown, along with its plentiful transportation options and cultural amenities, and active community development scene. However, the tool is easily scalable and adaptable to other communities, according to Fehrenbach. The API is flexible enough to accomodate as many categories with as many entries in each category as a community may desire.

Henderson eventually hopes to incorporate the HViAB tool into a wider initiative she has named Legally Occupy. Inspired by the larger Occupy and Occupy our Homes movements, Legally Occupy aims to serve as a clearinghouse for available government, private and nonprofit resources to permanently match vacant and abandoned structures with individuals and households facing housing insecurity. Presently the HViAB tool is in the funding phase; Henderson has launched two crowdfunding initiatives, one on Indiegogo and the other through Serve , in the hopes of raising enough capital to devote at least half-time effort to researching and building out the database for the tool over the coming months.

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