Public Policy Challenge team “Vacant Home Tours” sees progress for scalable anti-blight program

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by Bill Rivers
February 19, 2016

Kenneth Chu is irrelevant – and happy. That’s because the anti-blight program he helped found in Pittsburgh’s Wilkinsburg neighborhood is running smoothly without him.

“I dial in to the advisory committee meetings, but I’m silent pretty much the whole time,” said Chu, who now lives in Denver. “The local stakeholders and volunteers are so active, so on top of everything, they’ve got it covered.”

For Chu, it’s the most affirming thing about Vacant Home Tours, the project he and four other Carnegie Mellon students developed for the annual Public Policy Challenge competition hosted by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government.

“The local community was not only empowered by the project, but has actually taken ownership of it,” Chu said of his project. “When we first started, they were leery of five university students coming into a poor neighborhood planning to organize tours of dilapidated houses. Now they have taken it over and feel like they don’t need us at all – which is great.”

The idea was fairly simple: a program of self-guided neighborhood tours to reframe blight in Pittsburgh’s Wilkinsburg area by showcasing abandoned and vacant properties. Residents serve as tour guides, greeting tour participants and providing history about the families or former occupants of each structure as well as its role in the town’s development. The ultimate goal is to elevate the profiles of these properties and generate interest in renovation and neighborhood restoration.

But it’s the scalability of the Vacant Home Tours model that excites Chu and his team. And they’re not the only ones. Last winter, Chu was invited to present at the Preservation RightSizing Network’s Conference in Newark, N.J. The conference included activists and community preservationists from legacy cities around the country. After Chu presented, the introductions started coming in.

“The Historical Preservation Society in Detroit is interested in applying the model,” Chu said. “A group from Chicago reached out. People from Europe have contacted us, and they’re interested in adopting the model as a template for projects in Belgium and in Greece.”

“It’s the framework we hope people adopt,” Chu said. “The actual tasks can be morphed into different action-items depending on the community, but the framework can be applied anywhere.”

Chu and his team fly to Brazil this week where they will present Vacant Home Tours at the international “Design for Social Innovation” conference. The team will be exposed to global design methodology; their idea will be exposed to an audience of development academics and experts from around the world.

Their travel was made possible by financial support from the Fels Institute and the Neubauer Foundation. “The Fels Institute and the Public Policy Challenge were instrumental in giving us the kind of exposure that has led us to have such an impact. We are enormously grateful.”

And what about the community in Pittsburgh where it all started?

“The people of Wilkinsburg are right in the middle of producing the second annual Vacant Homes Tour,” Chu laughs, “and they don’t need me.”

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
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Philadelphia, PA 19104

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