Meet the Researchers:
New concentration offers opportunities for research benefiting the community
Interview with graduate student Sarah Niles, Joshua Lappen, John Mangiaratti, Leo Waterston and Liz Williams
Urban Development and Social Change (UDSC) is a new concentration offered for the first time during 2000-2001. Stipends were offered to four undergraduates interested in doing research in this field for eight weeks during summer 2001. Interviewed was graduate student supervisor Sarah Niles, along with the four undergraduate participants: Joshua Lappen '02, John Mangiaratti '02, Leo Waterston '02 and Liz Williams '04. Their majors are diverse: geography, sociology, economics and psychology. They plan to display a poster featuring their research at Fall Fest 2001.
Sarah, what can you tell us about this research in the context of the new UDSC concentration?
Sarah: One of the goals of the concentration was to provide hands-on research opportunities for undergrads as a complement to course work. Another goal was to create a data center for the city of Worcester and Worcester County. So we decided to merge those goals and offer to four undergrads the opportunity to work on a data collection project in Worcester, working under my supervision. We also wanted to work with the community, to do useful research for the community. We've worked in collaboration with the Main South Community Development Corporation (MSCDC) and the Worcester Common Ground Community Development Corporation, whose target regions border or include the Clark community. We met with them a number of times prior to the students coming on board and again afterwards to develop a research project. From the several ideas that were suggested, we decided to investigate property abandonment and vacant lots in the Main South area. One of the biggest concerns to these community organizations is how to get control of lots that have been abandoned or vacated and then turn them around, reinvest in them and redevelop them. A big part of the solution is to do title research on properties, and that research constituted a big chunk of what we did this summer. We looked at about 40 years of history on about 100 properties in the neighborhood to investigate how the properties got to their current stage of occupation/abandonment and to look into some of the possibilities for redevelopment.
How did you decide whether property was abandoned?
Liz: We got computerized maps of the target neighborhood from the City's Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). The maps were about 2 years old. We selected 5 census tracts within that area and we walked the tracts and updated the maps, noting which properties were abandoned, which buildings had been rebuilt, which lots were vacant. We selected at random different properties to do title research on.
How did you coordinate research among you?
Leo: We each had specific areas of research to work on. I looked at crime and crime-related problems in the neighborhood, community policing and policy, resident perception of crime and relationships with police. I interviewed residents of those neighborhoods and interviewed some police officers who patrolled those areas. Also I looked at crime data for the city and neighborhoods provided by the police department. Other people looked into tax liens and conveyance rates, that is, the number of times the property is turned over.
Is crime related to abandonment?
Leo: There's a consensus that there is a relationship, but the questions are how big, what causes what and what, and the nature of the relationship. In these neighborhoods where there is high abandonment, there are factors like drugs and gangs that will come into play. Those can be related to the abandoned properties because, for example, gangs will use an abandoned building or lot to conduct crime on or hide from the police. So we're trying to find out what the nature of the relationship is.
What pieces were the rest of you working on?
John: I looked at housing code information to see if there was a relationship between how many times these properties had problems with the code office-broken stairs, not enough lighting, etc. -things that may have led the owners to not wanting to repair.
The properties that you looked at, were they pretty evenly divided as to use: residential, commercial, industrial or were they waited to one particular type of use?
John: They were primarily residential.
Josh: I focused on tax liens, and other encumbrances on the land. A lien is a tax on the property that hasn't been paid. It might be a sewer tax or a regular property tax. The money is owed to the city until it's paid off. So you have some vacant properties that are collecting liens. Sometimes the lien becomes so costly that the property costs more than what it's really valued at. So that may be a reason why a property stays vacant. We also looked at non-market transactions, those for less than $100 or $1000, between family members or to real estate trusts. Sometimes people will convey the property to avoid paying the tax liens. Doing title research at the Registry of Deeds showed us this information-what had and hadn't been paid.
Liz, did you research tax liens as well?
Liz: No, I worked on property conveyances, seeing how many times a property has turned over, what the turnovers relate to, trying to understand if the owner is just using the property for land speculation.
Are you hoping to continue this research during the academic year?
Sarah: Leo's going to continue his research and two others will be branching into related areas of research. I'd like to keep this going. It would be nice to be able to do a complementary project next summer and extend this work. This was very much an exploratory study. We didn't have a firm hypothesis going in. This was a way to get some information for the community organizations and to look at areas that might help us to explain abandonment. We want to use this to create some new research questions for next year's students.
Do any of you want to make a comment about this research experience in the context of your undergraduate studies?
Leo: I think it was a very good experience. I'm a psychology major and research is a big part of the psych major. I'm also planning on grad school. This experience helped me a lot to gain more knowledge about the research process.
Do you feel a difference between what you did this summer and what you get out of a classroom experience?
Leo: I get a lot more out of a research experience like this than I do from the classroom. You get so much more in depth than you usually can in class.
Josh: My major is economics and I haven't really done any research before. It was a big change for me. Going outside, seeing the causes of abandonment, realizing that maybe it's not just cut and dried. To me it was a different experience-that was neat.