Houses becoming homes with the help of Vacant Home Tour

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August 30, 2015

Public Policy Challenge Grant Manager Dylan Hewitt caught up with Vacant Home Tours to learn more about what they've been up to since March:

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the work that we have done—or more accurately, it’s difficult to believe that the work that we have done is at all significant.  It was amazing to work with the community and their outpouring of camaraderie was truly life-changing, but did we actually make a difference?  Did we actually accomplish something?  And how do we know that we have done something that will have an actual, measurable outcome on this community beyond the immediate feelings of accomplishment?

We have enjoyed such an overwhelming outpouring of support, but currently find ourselves asking what it
actually mean in terms of direction for the project.  There are multiple communities that have made inquiries about the project – organizations wanting to know more about how it works, how we made it happen, what metrics have we seen, and what the costs are. 

While the project is fairly low in cost and fairly easy to replicate, at its core, its success is dependent on a substantial commitment in time and human resources – having people who are dedicated enough to the project to really see it through to fruition.  In a world where we are constantly trying to balance time, money, and human resources, it is the third element that is the most difficult to quantify.

The Vacant Home Tour (VHT) continues to work with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) to try to collect data on
vacant and abandoned properties.  Using existing metrics on inquiries pre- and post- VHT, we are trying to assess efficacy of the VHT in increasing the general population’s interest in becoming involved in these properties – whether it’s to purchase and renovate them as a primary residence, to purchase and renovate them for some other purpose, or whether it is to engage them in some other, completely out-of-the-box way – something that will continue to re-frame the way we think about blight in our communities.  While we continue to monitor data that the WCDC has always collected, we have also started to monitor data that the WCDC has not, in the past, monitored; such as data from some of the partner organizations with which we have developed coalitions in the battle against blight.  We believe that this data will potentially reveal valuable information to inform our next steps.

In the meantime, we continue to collate and organize the work that we have done.  We are attempting to create a workbook that can be used as a template for other communities interested in mounting the VHT to address their own battles with blight.  We are trying to capture what we have done without defining the steps because each community’s Vacant Home Tour needs to be unique to the needs, thoughts, ideas, and pride of the residents who live there.  We believe that our success was born from design research methods – engaging the project not from a traditional, linear, “needs assessment and strategic plan creation” method, but coming at it with design at the forefront – designing activities to engage the community in the challenge, designing activities for residents to discover what their strengths were in addressing this challenge, and designing the project – logistically and operationally, through branding and marketing – in a way that would compel interest, engagement, and action. 

We have also been invited to present the VHT at the 2016 Design Principles and Practices Conference in Brazil in February of 2016, under the category of “Design Transforming Society.” In preparation for this, we have been going back through our own research, re-connecting with the body of scholarship that we read, digested, and processed, which ultimately led to the realization of the VHT.  We’ve started to highlight important concepts that were integral to our process and will soon start defining and expanding on the connections between the scholarship and the actual work that was engaged. The final steps will be the creation of the paper for publication in the International Journey of Design in Society, and the creation of our presentation for the conference itself.

The invitation to present at this conference was very exciting for us.  But the burden of the cost of attending and presenting at the conference was ours, and we were unsure whether we would be able to accept the invitation.  However, we have had the great fortune to be granted support - through the Public Policy Challenge, the Neubauer Family Foundation, and the Fels Institute of Government – which will make our participation in this conference possible, and allow us to share our work with an international audience.

Our current work consists of three goals: 1) the completion of a workbook that other communities can use as a template for replication of the VHT in their own neighborhood, 2) continued data collection and analysis to create a better understanding of the impact and outcomes of the VHT, and 3) completion of our presentation for the conference that will clearly illustrate the design research and methodology that we used to create and implement the VHT, and that will show how design can be used as the impetus for social change and innovation, as opposed to only being engaged and applied near the end of the project timeline to merely represent and market the project well.

Written by Kenneth Chu, Vacant Home Tours Co-Founder

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326

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