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Vacant Opportunities: Are They Missed?

Vacant houses are all but an official symbol of Baltimore.  Block, after block of empty dwellings; many are barely able to stand on their own.

Kevin Macartney, Vice President of the Seton Hill Neighborhood Association, says vacant houses—vacants in the vernacular--are a scourge on the city.  “They blight neighborhoods that otherwise could be quite viable,” said the ten year neighborhood resident.

On the other hand, Carl Cleary, housing coordinator with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council says if more people saw vacants as opportunities and not just run-down buildings they would have a lot less work.  “What brings someone like this to the table is walking them down the street, having conversations with folks who say look, if you’d been here 10 years ago, you couldn’t have gotten down the alleys and so forth,” said Cleary.

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake began her first full-term in office in 2011, she announced a goal of attracting 10,000 families to the city over the next decade.  Part of her strategy to do that is to eliminate, by demolition or rehabilitation, vacant properties that blight some city neighborhoods.

City officials say there are 16,000 vacant houses in Baltimore while the federal count is at 23,000.  The city counts only unsafe vacant buildings while the federal number is based on all unoccupied buildings.  Of the 16,000, the city owns a quarter of them.  Mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty says it’s difficult to pin down the amount of lost tax revenue and the associated costs to the city when it comes to vacant properties.

But the empty dwellings scattered throughout the city affect the lives of many.

The house next door to Delegate Shawn Tarrant’s home in Northwest Baltimore has been vacant for a year.  “The owner itself passed away, so then, now it’s caught up in family business which is the worst business of all when family are trying to decide what to do with a house and nobody knows who’s going to get what and the neighbors suffer” says Tarrant, who takes turns with two of his neighbors to cut the grass and clean the trash around the house.

Keisha Allen bought her home in the Westport neighborhood five years ago.  One of the first buildings she sees walking out of her home near Sydney and Wenburn is an empty three story house. Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, Allen wants those who buy vacants to make them habitable instead of holding them until they can be sold for a profit.  “Yeah, you bought it and that’s great; you want to make money.  But sell it to the next person who is willing to fix it up.  There are actually people who want to live here but there’s not enough homes available.”

But Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods, a non-profit that provides some funding for vacants, says some who buy vacants have good intentions. They just get in over their heads.  “They discovered they were in worse condition – if you go behind those buildings you’ll see a lot of them are falling in – where they found they couldn’t borrow the money to do it,” he says. “They found that it was much harder to renovate.”

Then there’s the situation on Dorothy Williams’ street in Westport for 16 years. The three houses closest to her were abandoned in the last few years. And someone began rehabilitating the house next to Williams', but work stalled about three years ago. Williams says the owner is waiting for the owners of the two houses next to him to fix up their properties.

She said the owner was afraid he would spend a lot of money fixing up his house only to lose it if squatters moved into the next house and accidentally started a fire. She says that’s her problem with living next to vacant homes, especially in cold weather. "People don't have a home; you've got homeless people who are trying to move in and squat.  Then you got to worry about if they are going to set the house on fire."

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has injected $12 million in the capital budget now before the City Council to begin demolishing four thousand vacant homes over the next decade as part of her “Vacants to Value” initiative. The money comes from the mortgage settlement negotiated by several states, including Maryland, against accused predatory lenders. 

Meanwhile, Baltimore Housing normally budgets two and a half million dollars in its  operating budget for demolitions.  That number is expected increase over the next ten years. Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano says that in many instances demolition is the best solution “for a lot of those, frankly, functionally obsolete; often beyond repair and in places where there’s not the market anyway.”

Demolition is only part of the city administration’s efforts. The housing agency also uses code enforcement—requiring owners of vacant houses to bring them up to code --and other tools to quickly redevelop vacant properties.  A majority of city-owned vacants in small block clusters near strong areas – such as the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus and the East Baltimore redevelopment area - have been sold to private investors for rehab.  Graziano said investors wanted assurances that vacants owned by the city in a cluster would be made available for rehab.

Sissman says while many of the city-owned vacants are in rough shape, officials should not be blamed for it.  "If a building sits vacant long enough, the roof goes and when it rains, the insides begin to fall," says Sissman, “They need a lot of rebuilding and therefore a lot of money and some of those neighborhoods, you're going to be able to rent or sell them for less than what it cost to do them.” 

The city, under the Vacants to Values, is looking to sell 300 properties in 2014, a decrease from 2012 due to a one time sales surge during the time.