Friday, December 20, 2013

FOIA Friday: The Dangerous Buildings List

FOIA Friday is a weekly feature by Edward Vielmetti about public records. This week's document is Ann Arbor's "Dangerous Buildings" list, and some reasons why you might approach any public record with a degree of suspicion.

I asked for (and received promptly) a copy of the City of Ann Arbor's "Dangerous Buildings" list, after having this list mentioned and as part of my preparation for this week's Building Board of Appeals meeting. The list is not long, but it has some elements which should make it a good stopping off point for future FOIA requests. I've put a copy of the file on a2docs; download or view this version to follow along with the analysis. For reference you'll also want to go back to the Building Board of Appeals preview from this week.

A dangerous building? Perhaps, but not on the list.

The City had seven separate parcels on this week's Building Board of Appeals meeting agenda; of these parcels for which the city is considering / has recommended demolition, only three of them are on the Dangerous Buildings list.  Sixteen others are in a state of disrepair or vacancy that don't yet qualify them for consideration. There may be one list that has every single building that the city is watching with caution, but this one spreadsheet doesn't appear to be complete.

Unique identifiers are good to look for in public records, as they give you a key into someone's record keeping that can unearth a lot of information with one very specific search. One of the columns in the worksheet is the "Code Case" column, apparently referring to some other records that the city is keeping regarding code violations. Only four parcels have "Code Case" labels; for each of those, it should be possible to construct a FOIA request that asks for e.g. "all records associated with the Code Case 09CE-0274 for 415 Hamilton Place", and that should be specific enough to be findable within all of the records held by the city.

There's a "last inspection" date that's blank for more than half of the records in this file. Of the seven locations that have a last inspection date, the most recent is July 2012, and the oldest dates as far back as 2001. Certainly a lot can change in a year, and more can change in a decade.

Finally, the "condition of property" field has to be looked at with some suspicion. The entry for 800 North Main (a now-colorful, long-decrepit gas station at Main and Summit) says it's been vacant since November 2004, but the property description by the Building Board of Appeals for their hearing notes the site has been unoccupied since 1980. There may be more incomplete details in this worksheet.

What do you do with a list like this? First, it's not complete and accurate enough in and of itself to make very many conclusions. It's more useful as an index into other records and as a place to start making additional queries in order to fill out what the city knows about the sites in question. Dollars to donuts, that old gas station has a thick paper file somewhere, and if you really really want to know more about it you have to keep digging and following a paper trail. One FOIA'ed document does not a whole story make, except perhaps to illustrate that the process of deducing what a government knows about a property is by no means a simple one-step effort.

For more information on the FOIA process in Michigan, Edward Vielmetti has written The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. The work is about half done, and if you're interested in FOIA you can read a preview of part of the manuscript for free or buy it as-is with a 100% happiness guarantee.

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