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Mining its own data, CityBldr builds tool to show cities the best places to build affordable housing

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Blue patches represent publicly owned land in Seattle that could support housing. (CityBldr Graphic)

Engineers at CityBldr knew they were sitting on a goldmine of zoning and land data. After all, that’s how the Bellevue, Wash.-based big data company helps large corporations know the most cost-effective way to expand operations.

Then five years ago, staff members realized the data might lend itself toward solving one of the biggest social problems in the urban United States: affordable housing. The same information that could show a company where to build its next warehouse could also show a housing nonprofit or a city planner the entire inventory of underutilized, publicly owned land.

Moreover, it could immediately show them how many people could be housed on each parcel under existing zoning. Today, the company is launching a free demonstration website called Public to show — in a sharply limited-access way — what the software can do.

And with the launch, CityBldr is kicking off a campaign to get corporations to sponsor affordable housing nonprofits in order to get full access to the complete data that could reveal anything from low-hanging housing fruit to the underpinning of a long-term housing plan.

“We spent five years building the Rosetta Stone of zoning,” said Bryan Copley, CEO and co-founder of CityBldr. “And we think it can really help change the amount of housing available.”

That data could come in handy in Seattle come November. Should the Compassion Seattle Initiative get voter approval in the next election, the city will be required to build 2,000 units of housing over the following two years.

Copley said CityBldr has compiled a vast and deep land database of 100 U.S. cities with 255 different zoning standards. In those cities, Public data can show everything from land valuation, parcel size, current zoning, what currently is on the land, and how many people could be housed on the land under existing regulations.

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Blue patches represent publicly owned land in Bellevue, Wash., that could support housing. (CityBldr Graphic)

For land that has multi-use zoning, a user can click through parameters for single-family, townhome, or multi-family dwellings to find out how many people or units the land could legally hold. A city planner could find out in minutes how many additional people could be housed on all available public land within the city limits.

After consulting with urban planning experts at U.C. Berkeley, M.I.T. and Harvard University — the Harvard expert researched how best to help cities with the data — Copley said the search was restricted to publicly owned land for two reasons: it can be easier to get a city to unload underused land to a nonprofit and cities sometimes don’t have a simple way to track their own land inventories.

That said, the database someday could be opened to privately owned land as well, he said.

“We built it so people could make use of it,” Copley said. “You can’t make a private individual sell. Some people just want to sit on the land. But publicly owned land can be different.”

Copley said CityBldr representatives have spoken to housing officials and government leaders in Seattle and across the country and the reception has been enthusiastic. He said the cost of getting the data for each city will run $10,000 so that is what a corporation will pay to sponsor a nonprofit.

Ideally, he said, CityBldr won’t make a dime on Public. The plan is to collect money to pay for five full-time staff to help housing nonprofits and cities wade through and understand the data while continually updating the database as local regulations and land inventories change.

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“The dream,” Copley said, “is to make this zero out, cost wise. We’re not doing this for the money.”

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