Battling Blight: Four Ways Cities Are Using Data to Address Vacant Properties

Industry Update
August 21, 2017

Whether the result of a destructive natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the consequence of the foreclosure and home loan crisis of the mid-2000s, cities across America have been burdened with blight, the presence of vacant and abandoned properties. The effects are seen in cities large and small, from New York City to Cleveland, New Orleans, and Youngstown, Ohio.

The cost of these empty lots and abandoned homes is not simply a cosmetic black eye for cities; blight causes real, tangible problems, prompting action by cities across the country. A study published this June by The Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development looked at the relationship between vacant properties and community health and crime in Cleveland, Ohio. The findings were definitive: there is “significant correlation” between vacant properties and violent crime, homicides, and elevated lead levels in blood tests — 83 percent of homicides, 65 percent of violent crime hotspots, and 62 percent of elevated lead levels overlapped with vacancy hotspots in Cleveland.

In response to what has proved to be an urgent urban crisis, cities are deploying a wide range of digital and data-driven strategies to address vacant and abandoned properties. From using data to drive efficiency in code enforcement to crowdsourcing the mapping of properties, cities across the country are making significant strides in the battle against blight.


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans was faced with a an abundance of vacant and abandoned properties across the city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, when elected to office in 2010, made it a major priority of his administration to address the issue of abandoned and vacated properties across the Big Easy.

The city crafted a blight reduction strategy centered around results and improved performance management through public monthly BlightStat meetings. To further advance the work, the city began sending “nudging” letters to property owners when 311 complaints were filed, which resulted in more homeowners coming forward to bring properties into compliance before the city needed to take further action.

Taking the efforts a step further, the city also created a decision support scorecard that organizes the steps for handling a reported property and makes the code enforcement process significantly more efficient. Previously, there was a backlog of as many as 1,500 properties awaiting inspections and hearings — the digital scorecard streamlined the process. They implemented a machine learning model that makes recommendations for next steps based on a score for the property input by a mid-level supervisor, prioritizing the workflow for the Code Enforcement Department.


In South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Peter Buttigieg heard from residents on the campaign trail that they wanted to see the next administration tackle the issue of vacant and abandoned properties. In short order, Buttigieg assembled a team to address the issue and by February of 2013, the city released a Vacant and Abandoned Properties Task Force Report which laid out the publicly stated goal of addressing 1,000 vacant or abandoned properties in 1,000 days.

Residents were given a window into the code enforcement process and were able to track the city’s progress on the city’s website. The public eye proved valuable when local media picked up on a bug in the city’s progress tracking system that incorrectly showed 100 properties pending review by code enforcement officials as already addressed. Santiago Garces, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, said in an interview with Data-Smart that the revelation of this problem led to significant improvements in the city’s code enforcement process.

In the end, the city reached its stated goal of addressing 1,000 problem properties in September 2013, about two months ahead of schedule. By the 1,000th day, the city had taken action on 1,122 abandoned properties, repairing almost 40 percent of them, according to the city’s website. By taking a data-driven approach to tackling vacant and abandoned properties and using a digital platform to increase transparency to the public, Buttigieg’s administration sets a strong example for cities looking to solve public concerns over blighted properties.


Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force, in partnership with Michigan Nonprofit Association, Data Driven Detroit, and Loveland Technologies launched in 2013 a physical survey to gather property condition data for all 380,000 parcels of land in the city. The city collaborative set out to create a thorough database of conditions of every property in Detroit to give the city a sense of where problem properties needed to be addressed — and an all-in-one place to keep track of properties over time.

Through a mobile application aptly called “Blexting,” a team of about 150 residents and volunteers surveyed the entire city to compile the database and citywide property map. Surveyors used the mobile app to photograph the front of every property — residential and non-residential — and answered a standardized series of questions about the property. Their responses assessed individual properties based on estimated occupancy, vacancy, fire damage, the existence of any “dumping” and the use of property (commercial, public, etc.)

To maintain consistency and reliability in the crowdsourced data, the collaborative maintained a “mission control” center where staff performed a quality check of the data submitted from the field in real time. The task force website reports that of the total 84,641 structures and vacant lots in the city, about 40,000 were deemed to fit the definition of “blight” and prioritized for removal or intervention. The detailed and data-driven survey questionnaire approach also allowed for the estimation of properties with indicators of future blight, of which the task force reported about 38,000 fit the bill. The task force recommended further inspection of these properties and a variety of interventions including rehabilitation, removal, and securing.


In 2015, the University of Chicago team of data scientists at the Center for Data Science and Public Policy (DSaPP) worked with the Cincinnati Department of Buildings and Inspections to develop a predictive model that allows for early intervention by building inspectors at homes and properties most at risk of vacancy or violations.

The predictive models the team at DSaPP developed combined data about home values, fire, crime, tax, census, and water shutoff information with historical inspection data to develop a list of properties prioritized by their need for inspection. The logic is that the earlier an inspector can visit a property likely to be in violation of city code, the earlier problems can be addressed, and the more likely it will be that the property is fixed as opposed to abandoned.

DSaPP’s blog post detailing the project says that the traditional method of using citizen complaints to inform property inspections leads to a violation found in 53 percent of cases. The initial results from 2015 show that using the predictive model increases the likelihood of finding a building code violation in a specific property to 78 percent.

These examples of data-driven strategies set a great example for cities across the nation burdened with blight. Deploying data in the fight against blight can significantly improve the code enforcement process to prevent vacancies before they happen, give residents a window into a city’s progress in the process of addressing blight like in South Bend, and bring them directly into the process of mapping properties to increase citywide knowledge with apps like “Blexting.” Cities in need of blight reduction strategies would be wise to learn from Detroit, South Bend, New Orleans, and Cincinnati to tackle blight while building trust with residents and increasing transparency along the way. 

Source: Data-Smart City Solutions



Alan Jaffa

Alan Jaffa is the chief executive officer for Safeguard, steering the company as the mortgage field services industry leader. He also serves on the board of advisors for SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Alan joined Safeguard in 1995, learning the business from the ground up. He was promoted to chief operating officer in 2002, and was named CEO in May 2010. His hands-on experience has given him unique insights as a leader to innovate, improve and strengthen Safeguard’s processes to assure that the company adheres to the highest standards of quality and customer service.

Under Alan’s leadership, Safeguard has grown significantly with strategies that have included new and expanded services, technology investments that deliver higher quality and greater efficiency to clients, and strategic acquisitions. He takes a team approach to process improvement, involving staff at all levels of the organization to address issues, brainstorm solutions, and identify new and better ways to serve clients.

In 2008, Alan was recognized by Crain’s Cleveland Business in its annual “40-Under-40” profile of young leaders. He also was named a NEO Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® finalist in 2013.


Chief Operating Officer

Michael Greenbaum

Michael Greenbaum is the chief operating officer for Safeguard. Mike has been instrumental in aligning operations to become more efficient, effective, and compliant with our ever-changing industry requirements. Mike has a proven track record of excellence, partnership and collaboration at Safeguard. Under Mike’s leadership, all operational departments of Safeguard have reviewed, updated and enhanced their business processes to maximize efficiency and improve quality control.

Mike joined Safeguard in July 2010 as vice president of REO and has continued to take on additional duties and responsibilities within the organization, including the role of vice president of operations in 2013 and then COO in 2015.

Mike built his business career in supply-chain management, operations, finance and marketing. He has held senior management and executive positions with Erico, a manufacturing company in Solon, Ohio; Accel, Inc., a packaging company in Lewis Center, Ohio; and McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company in Aurora, Ohio.

Before entering the business world, Mike served in the U.S. Army, Ordinance Branch, and specialized in supply chain management. He is a distinguished graduate of West Point (U.S. Military Academy), where he majored in quantitative economics.



Sean Reddington

Sean Reddington is the new Chief Information Officer for Safeguard Properties LLC. Sean has over 15+ years of experience in Information Services Management with a strong focus on Product and Application Management. Sean is responsible for Safeguard’s technological direction, including planning, implementation and maintaining all operational systems

Sean has a proven record of accomplishment for increasing operational efficiencies, improving customer service levels, and implementing and maintaining IT initiatives to support successful business processes.  He has provided the vision and dedicated leadership for key technologies for Fortune 100 companies, and nationally recognized consulting firms including enterprise system architecture, security, desktop and database management systems. Sean possesses strong functional and system knowledge of information security, systems and software, contracts management, budgeting, human resources and legal and related regulatory compliance.

Sean joined Safeguard Properties LLC from RenPSG Inc. which is a nationally leading Philintropic Software Platform in the Fintech space. He oversaw the organization’s technological direction including planning, implementing and maintaining the best practices that align with all corporate functions. He also provided day-to-day technology operations, enterprise security, information risk and vulnerability management, audit and compliance, security awareness and training.

Prior to RenPSG, Sean worked for DMI Consulting as a Client Success Director where he guided the delivery in a multibillion-dollar Fortune 500 enterprise client account. He was responsible for all project deliveries in terms of quality, budget and timeliness and led the team to coordinate development and definition of project scope and limitations. Sean also worked for KPMG Consulting in their Microsoft Practice and Technicolor’s Ebusiness Division where he had responsibility for application development, maintenance, and support.

Sean is a graduate of Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts and received his Masters in International Business from Central Michigan University. He was also a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force prior to his career in the business world.


General Counsel and Executive Vice President

Linda Erkkila, Esq.

Linda Erkkila is the general counsel and executive vice president for Safeguard and oversees the legal, human resources, training, and compliance departments. Linda’s responsibilities cover regulatory issues that impact Safeguard’s operations, risk mitigation, enterprise strategic planning, human resources and training initiatives, compliance, litigation and claims management, and mergers, acquisition and joint ventures.

Linda assures that Safeguard’s strategic initiatives align with its resources, leverage opportunities across the company, and contemplate compliance mandates. Her practice spans over 20 years, and Linda’s experience covers regulatory disclosure, corporate governance compliance, risk assessment, executive compensation, litigation management, and merger and acquisition activity. Her experience at a former Fortune 500 financial institution during the subprime crisis helped develop Linda’s pro-active approach to change management during periods of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

Linda previously served as vice president and attorney for National City Corporation, as securities and corporate governance counsel for Agilysys Inc., and as an associate at Thompson Hine LLP. She earned her JD at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Linda holds a degree in economics from Miami University and an MBA. In 2017, Linda was named as both a “Woman of Influence” by HousingWire and as a “Leading Lady” by MReport.


Chief Financial Officer

Joe Iafigliola

Joe Iafigliola is the Chief Financial Officer for Safeguard. Joe is responsible for the Control, Quality Assurance, Business Development, Accounting & Information Security departments, and is a Managing Director of SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Joe has been in a wide variety of roles in finance, supply chain management, information systems development, and sales and marketing. His career includes senior positions with McMaster-Carr Supply Company, Newell/Rubbermaid, and Procter and Gamble.

Joe has an MBA from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and holds a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University’s Honors Accounting program.


AVP, High Risk and Investor Compliance

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer is the assistant vice president of high risk and investor compliance for Safeguard. In this role, Steve is responsible for managing our clients’ conveyance processes, Safeguard’s investor compliance team and developing our working relationships with cities and municipalities around the country. He also works directly with our clients in our many outreach efforts and he represents Safeguard at a number of industry conferences each year.

Steve joined Safeguard in 1998 as manager over the hazard claims team. He was instrumental in the development and creation of policies, procedures and operating protocol. Under Steve’s leadership, the department became one of the largest within Safeguard. In 2002, he assumed responsibility for the newly-formed high risk department, once again building its success. Steve was promoted to director over these two areas in 2007, and he was promoted to assistant vice president in 2012.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve spent 10 years within the insurance industry, holding a number of positions including multi-line property adjuster, branch claims supervisor, and multi-line and subrogation/litigation supervisor. Steve is a graduate of Grove City College.


AVP, Operations

Jennifer Jozity

Jennifer Jozity is the assistant vice president of operations, overseeing inspections, REO and property preservation for Safeguard. Jen ensures quality work is performed in the field and internally, to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations. Jen has demonstrated the ability to deliver consistent results in order audit and order management.  She will build upon these strengths in order to deliver this level of excellence in both REO and property preservation operations.

Jen joined Safeguard in 1997 and was promoted to director of inspections operations in 2009 and assistant vice president of inspections operations in 2012.

She graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in business.


AVP, Finance

Jennifer Anspach

Jennifer Anspach is the assistant vice president of finance for Safeguard. She is responsible for the company’s national workforce of approximately 1,000 employees. She manages recruitment strategies, employee relations, training, personnel policies, retention, payroll and benefits programs. Additionally, Jennifer has oversight of the accounts receivable and loss functions formerly within the accounting department.

Jennifer joined the company in April 2009 as a manager of accounting and finance and a year later was promoted to director. She was named AVP of human capital in 2014. Prior to joining Safeguard, she held several management positions at OfficeMax and InkStop in both operations and finance.

Jennifer is a graduate of Youngstown State University. She was named a Crain’s Cleveland Business Archer Award finalist for HR Executive of the Year in 2017.


AVP, Application Architecture

Rick Moran

Rick Moran is the assistant vice president of application architecture for Safeguard. Rick is responsible for evolving the Safeguard IT systems. He leads the design of Safeguard’s enterprise application architecture. This includes Safeguard’s real-time integration with other systems, vendors and clients; the future upgrade roadmap for systems; and standards designed to meet availability, security, performance and goals.

Rick has been with Safeguard since 2011. During that time, he has led the system upgrades necessary to support Safeguard’s growth. In addition, Rick’s team has designed and implemented several innovative systems.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Rick was director of enterprise architecture at Revol Wireless, a privately held CDMA Wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana, and operated his own consulting firm providing services to the manufacturing, telecommunications, and energy sectors.


AVP, Technology Infrastructure and Cloud Services

Steve Machovina

Steve Machovina is the assistant vice president of technology infrastructure and cloud services for Safeguard. He is responsible for the overall management and design of Safeguard’s hybrid cloud infrastructure. He manages all technology engineering staff who support data centers, telecommunications, network, servers, storage, service monitoring, and disaster recovery.

Steve joined Safeguard in November 2013 as director of information technology operations.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was vice president of information technology at Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana. He also held management positions with Northcoast PCS and Corecomm Communications, and spent nine years as a Coast Guard officer and pilot.

Steve holds a BBA in management information systems from Kent State University in Ohio and an MBA from Wayne State University in Michigan.


Assistant Vice president of Application Development

Steve Goberish

Steve Goberish, is the assistant vice president of application development for Safeguard. He is responsible for the maintenance and evolution of Safeguard’s vendor systems ensuring high-availability, security and scalability while advancing the vendor products’ capabilities and enhancing the vendor experience.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was a senior technical architect and development manager at First American Title Insurance, a publicly held title insurance provider based in southern California, in addition to managing and developing applications in multiple sectors from insurance to VOIP.

Steve has a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University in Ohio.