“Government problems are fundamentally human problems.” This is what Code for Dayton Brigade Captain David Best [pictured below] believes. He and his co-captain, Janet Michaelis, and team of volunteers put this belief into practice with the launch of LotLinker, a tool to help residents find and purchase blighted properties for sale in Dayton, Ohio.

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Dayton currently has around 6,000 vacant and abandoned properties within city borders. Blight has real effects beyond the economic impact and the visual effect on the city landscape.  According to National Institute of Health data, the presence of blighted properties in an area can also take a psychological toll on residents.

A human problem, indeed.

A group of volunteers at Code for Dayton, the city’s Code for America Brigade, set out to address this issue, by making access to the city’s abandoned lot purchasing program easier.

[For anyone familiar with Code for America’s history, this is not the first time members of its broader network have taken on issues related to blight. BlightStatus, a 2012 Fellowship project, tackled the issue from a different perspective in partnership with residents and city officials in New Orleans.]

The volunteers, led by Brigade captains Janet Michaelis and Dave Best, built LotLinker, which made it easier for residents to access properties and returned revenue to the city in the form of property taxes on the newly rejuvenated properties.

Said homeowner and small business owner Nicole Carver-Wishart, in a video about the tool, “For a small-timer like me... and first time home buyers who are making $15 an hour... this gives me the ability to get a house and rehab it.” Ultimately, she plans to sell the home she found through LotLinker at an affordable price to another member of the community, transforming what would otherwise be a blighted property and returning it to the neighborhood.

LotLinker.com is the software built by Brigade volunteers - not to be confused with Lot Links - a project of the City of Dayton. The program was created in response to the state legislation called the Real Estate Acquisition Process (REAP), a complex process through which tax foreclosed property becomes available for purchase. LotLinker was built as an independent front end on top of Lot Links; a gateway that makes the program far more accessible, encouraging residents to find and purchase available properties in their neighborhoods.

Planning and Community Development Coordinator Paula Powers was running the Lot Links program all by herself in 2015. When the Brigade reached out to improve the program, she leapt at the offer. She worked directly alongside the volunteers to create LotLinker.

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Montgomery County Treasurer, Carolyn Rice [pictured next to Code for Dayton volunteer Dave Sparks] first heard about LotLinker after Mayor Nan Whaley told her about the software. Rice contacted the Brigade to see if they could replicate it for the Montgomery County Land Bank.

“Code for Dayton is an amazing group of highly skilled and enthusiastic volunteers willing to spend their free time working on projects that benefit the community,” said Rice. “Dayton is grateful to continue be one of the beneficiaries of that amazing and valuable time, energy, and talent.”

Using the tool, residents are able to search on a map for prospectively eligible properties. Shepherding customer searches used to consume tremendous amounts of city staff time. Now, the first several steps are automated, speeding up the process for would-be rehabbers and freeing up staff resources for other aspects of the program.

The work between city officials and Brigade volunteers wasn’t one-sided, though. Said Rice about the experience of working with Dayton Brigade members, “ I felt like the Code for Dayton team members listened to what was needed and... accommodated requests for live testing of the tool for several months prior to releasing it and allowed input on the design of the tool.”

As anyone knows who has launched a minimum viable product (MVP), the job isn’t done after the initial launch. “Probably even more amazing than the experience with the creation, testing, and launch of the tool is the continued support for the monthly maintenance of the tool,” said Rice.

LotLinker was just the beginning of collaborations between the City, County and the Brigade on  blight related projects. The volunteers have also been working with Rice’s department and the county clerk on an interactive map that would show foreclosure status.

A New Start

The rehabbed home featured in the video about LotLinker from the City of Dayton has a new coat of paint, new appliances, and flowers blooming cheerily from the window boxes. A facelift for a property that contributes to the overall well-being and vibrancy of the city.

Also in full bloom is the relationship between the volunteer-run Brigade and city officials. “We were able to build LotLinker because a single government employee, who cared deeply about the program she was struggling to run, was willing to partner with us.  Many more officials and staffers have gotten to know and trust us as a result of that first collaboration, and we’re excited about the growing possibilities ahead of us,” said Janet Michaelis.

Learn more about Code for Dayton projects.

Not in Dayton, but interested in getting involved in these types of projects? Find the local brigade in your area