Blight Survey: What Is It & How To Do One

A blight survey is the process of inventorying municipal housing stock to understand what percentage or number of residential and commercial structures are in a state of disrepair or decay. Because there is no single, universal definition of ‘blight’ and no single, universal method of surveying, the results of blight surveys vary across city lines. In this blog post, we discuss how to define the scope of a blight survey, how to define the evaluation criteria and different methods to collect and evaluate blight in your municipality.

Defining the Scope of a Blight Survey

The scope of a blight survey should be directly related to and driven by the purpose. A blight survey can be performed on an entire municipality. However, it is often performed in a specific geographic area or neighborhood for a specific purpose. For example, Choice Neighborhood and ARPA funds can be used to revitalize and rehab blighted properties and require substantial data to compile a competitive funding proposal.

Contact us to learn more about how City Detect data can elevate your grant applications or grant reporting.

A blight survey that is performed on an entire municipality and includes every structure is considered “complete coverage” and is best done coinciding with decennial US Census surveys or integrated into regular code enforcement activities. The baseline data gathered from this kind of large-scale effort will be useful for years. A complete coverage blight survey will provide data that can inform public health initiatives, infrastructure investments, grant applications, beautification projects, and more. While the value of this baseline data is undeniable, the budget and personnel needed to set aside normal operations can be daunting….in fact, comprehensive blight surveys have historically been unfeasible, significantly limiting data-driven urban planning decisions. 

City Detect’s AI-powered technology can provide near-real-time, complete coverage of your municipality’s infrastructure in days. See how here.

Defining Blight Evaluation Criteria

Unfortunately, there is no universal definition or criteria for blight. Often, “we know it when we see it” is the approach to identifying and prioritizing blighted structures. Alternatively, blighted structures become neighborhood nuisances, and residents complain. While citizen engagement and grassroots organizing are incredibly powerful catalysts for change (check out the work of Refuse Refuse), the squeaky wheel gets the grease. This reactive approach can lead to biased implementation of code enforcement. While these approaches are intuitive, they lack the rigorous data required to obtain internal and external funding for large-scale change.

Legal & Community Informed Blight Survey Criteria

Start with the existing municipal code to identify the legally enforceable criteria of blight. Next, evaluate 311 calls and requests for service or engage community members in defining and prioritizing what blight means to your community. For example, in 2014, Hudson, MA, sent a paper survey to residents asking them to define blight.1

These questions are a great way to gather community input and prioritize your municipality’s blight survey.

Methods to Collect and Measure Blight

There are various ways to capture the state of housing infrastructure in your municipality, from paper to AI-powered. The methods below are organized from most efficient and cost-effective to least efficient and cost-effective.

Method 1: City Detect’s Blight Survey and Report

City Detect’s AI-powered, near-real-time blight surveys and reports are at the cutting edge of blight survey data collection and analysis. City Detect’s blight survey is better across the board. Here’s how:

  • Near-real-time data collection and live dashboard of blight survey results that transforms data into actionable insights.
  • Intuitive & up-to-date blight reports at your fingertips.
  • City Detect trains its AI across a wide variety of cross-jurisdictional contexts and settings, ensuring more accurate reports in a dynamic and changing environment.
  • Out-of-the-box solution: City Detect has built, trained, and prepared the technology for deployment.
  • Turn-key support: City Detect includes support, training, and grant specialists.
  • Rapid response: City Detect deploys innovations and new feature requests in weeks, bypassing budgetary or legislative cycles.
  • Built with the end in mind: City Detect’s web portal dashboard plugs into ticketing and report systems, enabling stakeholders to prioritize interventions towards the most significant issues, allowing for updated issue tracking and progress monitoring over time, enabling stakeholders to prioritize interventions toward the most significant issues

While every blight survey method has pros and cons, spending weeks or months manually collecting data will leave your city and residents reacting to crises rather than proactively addressing problems. City Detect is your municipality’s one-stop shop for blight surveys and reports.

Schedule a demo today to learn how City Detect can help.

Method 2: Community Response Blight Surveys

A community survey is a low-cost method to evaluate the blighted structures in a municipality. Surveys can be done online via computer or mobile devices or on paper. Local university researchers may be able to assist in the study design and survey design. Interns, grassroots organizations, and community volunteers are ideal for helping to spread the word and getting responses. Consider setting up a booth at the local farmers market or sports event. Add the survey link to social media, local news channels, and screens in government offices where residents tend to wait, such as DMVs, public health clinics, and public utility offices.

While time-intensive and resource-intensive, community response surveys allow municipalities to collect community demographics and constituent insights—valuable inputs for prioritizing urban planning projects. Unfortunately, most code enforcement agencies don’t have the luxury of abundant time or resources. Most code enforcement agencies are predominantly Reactive (responding to constituent complaints through 311 calls, complaints to the code enforcement department, city council, or mayor’s office). Usually, less than 20% of the time, it is proactive rather than reactive. Groups want to move towards proactive so they can intervene before the issues become even more costly. The costlier a blight survey is, the harder it is to implement compliance.

Method 3: Code Enforcement Officer Manual Surveys

Code enforcement officers, building inspectors, and related professionals are the best people to collect information on blighted properties for most municipalities. Experts such as code enforcement officers and building inspectors are trained on municipal codes, respond to community requests, and receive extensive annual professional development training on International Property Maintenance Codes. Their well-trained eyes and evaluation tools provide the highest level of human evaluation. These sworn officers interact with the homeowners/ residents to help preserve the integrity of the housing stock and share resources available in the community to bring housing situations up to standards.

Code enforcement officers regularly survey community neighborhoods for blighted structures. The data and results of these officers’ work can be compiled, analyzed, and used to generate reports. These manual surveys and reports are ideal for small geographic areas proportional to the human power available and considering the many important aspects of code enforcement operations.

Method 4: Leverage Social Media

Most social media platforms have geo-tagging capabilities. In a recent pilot study leveraging Instagram, the City of Mobile, Alabama, took an innovative approach.

Interactive blight map of Mobile from the 2020 Blight Survey

“For decades, blighted homes have slowly affected the surrounding properties, dragging property values down and creating safety concerns in their wake. Even so, a true blight survey had never been conducted before this i-team project kicked off. In order to understand how deep a problem runs, you have to understand its extent, so we sought to create Mobile’s first inventory of blight. We used Instagram as a pilot, utilizing its mapping feature to take photos of blighted properties and map their locations.”

Mobile Office of Strategic Initiatives

The resulting map indicates blighted properties in purple. By 2025, the Downtown Mobile Business Improvement District Management Plan aims to

  • reduce empty, derelict buildings by 50%
  • decrease office vacancy by 10%
  • increase the number of Downtown workers by 15%
  • increase new housing units downtown by 500 units
2022 Blight Survey of Toulminville, a neighborhood in Mobile.

Mobile’s code enforcement officers performed the blight survey via Instagram, and Mobile’s GIS department created the map. In 2022, Mobile performed another survey. This time, the survey results contained more information, including the number of infractions associated with a property and the extent of the blight.

This technology-enhanced approach has allowed Mobile to provide residents and stakeholders with a deeper understanding of the extent of blight in Mobile. See photos of the structures in this blight survey in this report.

While the 2020 blight survey provided extensive coverage, the 2022 blight study and the 2022 Downtown Mobile Baseline Property Survey focused on specific downtown areas.

  1. ↩︎

Gavin Baum-Blake

Gavin Baum-Blake is an army veteran and seasoned entrepreneur with a background in startup law. As the Co-founder and CEO of City Detect, he leads the charge in revolutionizing urban analysis using AI and computer vision technologies. His expertise in identifying urban challenges, such as blight, housing decay, and illegal dumping, has positioned City Detect as a leader in technological innovation, evidenced by numerous awards and pitch competition victories. With a background in law, he ensures that their advanced solutions adhere to the highest ethical and legal standards. An avid traveler, his global experiences enrich his dedication to fostering smarter, safer, and more sustainable cities through technology. Contact Gavin to learn how City Detect can help transform your city.