Vacant Opportunities: Avoiding Collapse

Jun 18, 2013

Clara Bailey lives in the 1100 block of East Hoffman Street in Oliver.  As she walks through her living room to show her backyard, it’s clear why she is looking forward to moving out.

 The first thing you see is the trees and wires all twisted together. 

“You don’t know if they’re live wires or if they not live wires but they all hanging in my back yard,” said Bailey as she points to some of the houses down from her where the backs have fallen off.  “You can see where the house next door to me is caving in also.  The drain system, that’s the bathroom which is about to fall also,” she adds.  The vacant property immediately next to her is starting to affect the structural integrity of her house.

To add insult to injury, the alley on the side of her house has been turned into a dumping ground.  “They dump tires, and that’s a city property also.  They don’t cut the grass.  It’s like they bring out all the trash right here on the side of my house."

Bailey lives with her husband and mother in law, who has raised several generations in the home.  They are the only occupants on the block. It has been more than 20 years since they had neighbors.  While she is heartbroken at the state of her block, she cannot wait to leave.  “No one needs to live in this condition,” says Bailey, “ I have two squirrels that crawl through my ceilings.  At night when I’m actually in bed I can hear that.”

The city hopes to remove blight and assist Bailey at the same time.  Officials are looking to spend at least 100 million dollars over the next decade to demolish 4,000 vacants.  Fifteen hundred under that number is expected to be accomplished over the next three years under a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Bailey heard about a meeting that city officials were holding to discuss relocating residents from blocks where there are more vacants than occupants.  She attended that meeting.  Then a month ago, Baltimore Housing sent a letter expressing interest in buying her property and relocating her at city expense.  An appraiser is expected to visit her this week.

Bailey explains that the home has been in the family for 65 years and they could not simply leave.  “My mother in law raised four boys here.  Also her grandkids has been here.  That’s three generations right there.” She also explained her mother-in-law wanted to stay until something is done for her.  “It’s about an 85-year-old woman who has been here; who has stuck in this neighborhood through thick and thin and has got out there and cleaned and still wiping down her white marble steps, still cleaning them through thick and thin because this is where she comes from and she’s proud of it.”

Julie Day, Deputy Commissioner of Land Resources for Baltimore Housing says that leaving families like Bailey’s in similar situations would be “a true disservice.”  Federal law requires the city to make displaced property owners whole.  Day says they work with those being displaced to find better situations anywhere they please.  "We really encourage folks to stay in the city and the majority generally do.  But they move into a house that is safe, secure, has more value," said Day.  Twelve million is being proposed in the 2014 capital budget.

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano calls the funding “a down payment” adding a demolition, like a recent one in Remington, can make a difference.  “We demolished one house on the end of the block that had a little community garden on the end next to it.  That together with two rehabs that will occur on that block will take care of the entire block.”

Baltimore Housing says that blight elimination is important for the security, health and safety of neighborhoods in the city.  They were reminded of that fact on June 7, when a vacant collapsed in the 400 block of East Biddle Street in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Johnston Square.  No one was hurt, but residents have concerns. Anthony Bost moved to the block a couple of months ago, next door to a vacant.

“The inspectors are pretty much primarily concerned on what’s going on there.  They need to be concerned about the whole block being shored up properly,” said Bost, who hopes that with the media attention from the collapse, something can be done about the block.

A few doors down, Rose Marie, a 17-year resident of the block, is less hopeful.  She doesn’t believe the attention will prompt action from city hall.  The vacant property she lives next door to has a hole in a roof, which is not only making her concerned about her property, but her personal safety as well.  “I’m disabled, I’m retired and I had operations on my leg and if the thing fall, I cannot run.”

Baltimore Housing Spokeswoman Cheron Porter in an email says vacant and blighted properties are a major concern for the agency, adding that severe weather conditions can cause these buildings to collapse.  Porter goes on to say that removing blight, like the collapsed building on East Biddle Street, is the goal of the Vacants to Value Initiative.