Deconstructing Vacants

Baltimore, like many older cities in America, has a problem with vacant houses that often stretch on for blocks, creating urban blight that depresses property values, stymies redevelopment efforts and serves as a hub for crime.

In this series, WYPR examines the issues behind the problem and the efforts to find solutions.

Deconstructing Vacants is made possible by a grant from the Goldseker Foundation.

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

The 2200 block of Callow Avenue in Reservoir Hill has been described as the hole in the doughnut of redevelopment in that West Baltimore neighborhood.  "This is the core, development occurred all around it," said Carl Cleary, housing coordinator for the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council.

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

  

There is a house on Stonewood Road in the New Northwood neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore that is clearly falling apart.

The rain gutters are hanging on their last hinges.  The shingles are peeling away from the roof. Rusted outdoor furniture is on the front porch and the railings are wrapped in weather beaten garland for the holidays. More Christmas decorations stick up from a couple of flower pots.

It looks as if neighbors have been trying to take care of the yard.  Someone had started bagging leaves.

Baltimore Housing

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value Initiative aims to reduce the blight of vacant houses in the city by giving people incentives to buy them and fix them up.  The houses that can’t be fixed are demolished, leaving gaping empty lots.

City officials are trying to beautify those lots  by offering incentives to community groups and others to turn them into “green spaces.”

Green Ideas For Green Spaces

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

  Seventeen people are hard at work at a job site in the 2300 and 2400 blocks of E. Eager Street in Milton-Montford.  The site is right next to the Amtrak line and can be seen by train passengers.  The workers are salvaging what they can of the wood, brick and metal from one of the 35 houses being torn down.

At a table nearby, six people are chiseling mortar off bricks and setting them on a pallet.  The bricks will be sold to contractors along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast.

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

For nearly two decades, Maryland law has allowed community associations to sue the owners of blighted properties to force repairs. But it wasn’t until this year that any of those associations managed to win anything because of a quirk in the law that kept them out of court.

This is the story of how six Baltimore City associations pulled off that victory.

P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR

North Avenue, possibly the longest, straightest east-west street in Baltimore, provides a snapshot of how urban blight affects the city.

Once a bustling strip of shops, businesses and homes, it is now a crime-ridden jumble of deserted, crumbling buildings with pockets of life scattered in between.

Ninety year old Philip Brown--who opened the Uptown Barber Shop near North Avenue and Bloomingdale Road back in the 50s and is still cutting hair--says the street had it all back then.

P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR

Community advocates are looking at attacking two of Baltimore’s biggest problems – 16,000 vacant houses that blight blocks of the city and the need for affordable housing – with community land trusts.

P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR

The first impression train travelers from the north get of Baltimore isn’t a very good one.

And that makes potential investors leery of the city.

The train rolls past older, active neighborhoods at first. But once past Frank Bocek Park, the scenery changes to block after block of crumbling, vacant houses, right in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital’s famous.  Some roofs have caved in and windows are broken.  Sometimes walls have crumbled away entirely, leaving the interior of the houses visible.