An Englewood Rising: What Code for America Means for Chicago

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

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This week marks the annual Code for America Summit. The Summit is THE event that convenes and celebrates the nation’s civic technology ecosystem. I chose the word “convenes” deliberately, because civic technology itself is about convening city stakeholders. The summit will showcase where citizens have partnered with their governments to take an active role in their communities, largely through technology.

Chicago is well represented on the list of summit speakers. Among the speakers and panelists will be: Tom Schenk, the City of Chicago’s Chief Data Officer who will talk about what a government should do once they open their data; Brett Goldstein, who was the City’s CIO, and is a national luminary in this space, talking about decision making with open data; and Chris Whitaker, our regional Code for America lead, who will talk about civic organizing.

At the summit, a story from Chicago will be told that I find to be the most representative of what the best of civic technology can bring to a community. That story is the one of LargeLots.org. It is a story of a community organizer (Demond Drummer), and a company that builds civic technology (DataMade) working with the city and neighborhood organizations to creatively address vacant spaces.   To understand LargeLots, one first has to understand the history of the Englewood neighborhood.

In the 1950’s, when my mother went to school there, Englewood was a thriving neighborhood. Its population was 4 times what it is today. 63rd and Halsted was the single largest non-downtown retail district in the country. Like any neighborhood, it had its problems. But there was no question that this neighborhood had a great deal to attract businesses, visitors, and residents.

In the late ’60s, white flight, bank divestment, and race riots completely destabilized the neighborhood. April 4, 1968 marked a major turning point when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to civil unrest, which led to businesses to shut down, never to re-open. In more recent times, the area has lost 25% of its population since the year 2000, leaving behind numerous vacant buildings and spaces, which leave it vulnerable to plight. Englewood, it seems, was in dire need of a stabilization plan.

However wounded, the city has not given up on Englewood. More specifically, residents of Englewood have not given up. This is where our quintessential example of civic technology comes into play. The City of Chicago put together a Large Lots program and implemented it first in Englewood. This is an innovative housing land use program that allows residents who live within a 1 block radius of a vacant lot to purchase that lot for $1.

The ultimate goals of the program are to:

  • Give local residents greater control over vacant land in their neighborhood
  • Dispose of some of the City-owned land in the neighborhoods efficiently (which returns the land to the tax rolls)
  • Create wealth in the community by allowing owners to sell land after five years
  • Increase safety, build community, and raise home values by creating more neighborhood-level investment

In other words, the City partners with residents who are committed to the neighborhood to build a better place and create opportunity.   What is missing in this formula is an easy way to identify and purchase the lots.

Enter civic tech. Demond Drummer at Teamwork Englewood partnered with Derek Eder at civic tech company DataMade. With funding from LISC Chicago (with support from the Boeing and the Knight Foundation), they built largelots.org to facilitate moving vacant land into the hands of property owners.

Rather than fighting through multiple zoning maps, working through two levels of government, and working their way through multiple processes, residents can go to a single sight and easily see the lots available, parcels that are for sale, and details on the lot, using data combined from the county and city. From there, it is a simple process to create and even track the application. They took all the steps that at one point lived in multiple PDFs and put it into 4 simple steps.

The results are stunning. In fact, they even stunned the creators, Eder and Drummer. They had expected, in their first go-around, 100 applications. They had received over 500 applications in 30 days. The year prior, there were 35 lots transferred for the entire city over the full year. More importantly, those who participated in LargeLots were those vested in Englewood. Those who believed in an Englewood rising. I can’t think of a better example to represent civic tech in Chicago at the Code for America summit.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.