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When Vacant Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Vacant

P. Kenneth Burns


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.

Even though the house looks vacant, technically it’s not. Under city law it’s merely unoccupied because the windows and doors are not boarded.

What is a vacant structure?!

“A vacant home is one that is unsafe and unfit,” says Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner of litigation for permits and code enforcement at Baltimore Housing.  “It’s got structural damage or it’s open to casual entry or it’s boarded up.”

Even though no one has lived in the house on Stonewood Road for at least three years, it doesn’t meet the definition of “vacant” because the windows are not busted and the roof has not caved in.

“I was floored,” said Ivory Sanders, a resident of New Northwood for more than 20 years, upon hearing how the city defines a vacant structure.

She is secretary of the neighborhood association and says nearby residents have complained about the property for years.

“They remind us that the house is in poor condition and something’s wrong with the roof; the gutter is falling off,” said Sanders who added that neighbors also complained about construction debris in the backyard.

But because the house is classified as “unoccupied” the city can’t do anything about it.  If it’s declared “vacant,” the city can move to take over and fix the mess.

Baltimore Housing says there are 16,000 unsafe vacant properties in the city.  The federal count is 23,000 unoccupied buildings.

Redefining What a Vacant Structure Is

City Councilman Bill Henry is moving to fix that problem with a law that expands the definition of a vacant structure to include properties like the one on Stonewood Road. It would define a building as vacant if it has broken windows or doors on any level; if the windows and doors are boarded or the rain gutters and shingles aren’t intact.

Henry knows what it’s like to see a house crumble to the ground.  A house in his North Baltimore neighborhood sat empty for years after the owner died.  The owner’s estate let the house fall into foreclosure.

“It was technically unoccupied because the ground floor was sealed but there was an upstairs window that had been smashed in a storm by a shutter,” Henry said.

The broken window allowed animals to get inside along with weather elements which weakened the structure and caused the house to collapse.

Henry introduced his bill, which has the support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, more than a year ago. The City Council gave preliminary approval on December 4. Final approval is expected in January.

Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said Henry’s law would allow the city to address nuisances before houses fall to the ground.

“It allows us to capture a lot more blight into the bucket for which we have really competent remedies,” he said.