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CityLab
Economy

Using Astronomy To Fight Urban Blight

In a partnership with Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore is borrowing a trick from stargazers to predict housing abandonment.
A pair of surviving rowhomes surrounded by vacant lots at dusk in Baltimore. The city has some 17,000 vacant buildings.
A pair of surviving rowhomes surrounded by vacant lots at dusk in Baltimore. The city has some 17,000 vacant buildings. Patrick Semansky/AP

Almost 17,000 houses sit boarded-up and vacant throughout Baltimore. These are the ones deemed officially unlivable by the city, some with rooftops or walls missing. But those structures represent just a fraction of a larger problem. Estimates from the Census and other community surveys suggest anywhere between 30,000 and 54,000 other homes are currently unoccupied. The question is: Which ones?

It’s a similar story in other cities that have experienced severe population drops, such as Detroit and Cleveland. Keeping track of the exact locations of vacancies can prove difficult as the only occupancy data available is often out of date or incomplete. This information gap represents a challenge for housing authorities trying to stabilize shaky neighborhoods.