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Vacant Opportunities: Making Them Valuable

P. Kenneth Burns

Many neighborhoods in Baltimore City that have been blighted by blocks of vacant homes are starting to rebuild through Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Vacants to Value” initiative. You can see some of that progress in Oliver and in the 700 block of Newington Avenue in Reservoir Hill.

There’s a house in that block with fresh plantings and tree wells surrounded by wrought iron. Geraldine Okwesa, known around here as Miss Gerrie, tends a bed of roses nearby, across from an alley flower garden that she coordinated.

 “We managed to get all perennials in there so they come back every year,” she says. “I got to trim up the trees so you can see the flowers.  It is really a beautiful part of what the neighbors have accepted as their own.”

It was a different story ten years ago. Rick Gwynallen, executive director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, says he was warned to stay off Newington back then due to the number of vacant houses.

 “There was a lot of trash in the alleys.  It was not an up and coming street.  The street had safety issues,” Gwynallen says.

The same can be said for Oliver in East Baltimore, once a vibrant neighborhood with thriving small businesses. But 30 years ago, says Faye Kimbrough, of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), it was as if somebody shut out the lights.

“We had a lot of vacant houses, we had a lot of drugs and just despair,” recalls Kimbrough, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. “Elderly didn’t want to come outside because they were afraid.”

But within the last few years, Oliver—the community—is being rebuilt through a partnership between BUILD and Philadelphia-based TRF Development Partners.

“You see the elderly come outside to sit on their steps now,” says Kimbrough. “Different things like that.  So it’s a better safer place.  They came in and redid the homes; put neighbors where there weren’t neighbors.”

A lot of the improvements in Reservoir Hill, Oliver and other city neighborhoods can be credited in part to the mayor’s Vacants to Value initiative. It’s described as a six-pronged approach to dealing with the 16-thousand vacant houses in the city.

The prongs include code enforcement – forcing the owners of vacant properties to keep them up to code – demolition and large scale redevelopment. The initiative aims to speed up the process of selling vacant buildings for rehabilitation or demolishing them by cutting bureaucratic red-tape.

The Reverend Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, said plans to redevelop Oliver date back to 2000 when five churches that were part of BUILD started to talk about how to change the face of the neighborhood.

“We had an organizer on the street, somebody who was knocking on the door, finding out what the community interest were and we became well aware that it was public safety, housing and the health issues in the community,” he says.

TRF, a non-profit community developer, entered the picture in 2006. Kim Nunnally, TRF’s regional manager, says Vacants To Value has allowed them to buy vacants in a more timely manner; helping to keep costs down. She says she has seen individual buyers benefit from the program as well.

 “We’ve had homeowners who have actually used the Vacants to Value funding to reduce their loan amounts,” she says. 

In Reservoir Hill, neighborhood leaders are looking to Vacants to Value to help revive additional blocks, like the 200 and 2300 blocks of Callow Avenue. Carl Cleary, housing coordinator with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, says those blocks may be the only two in the city that are part of the Healthy Neighborhoods program that can’t for loans from Health Neighborhoods, a non-profit that lends money to buyers to rehabilitate vacant homes,

Mark Sissman, president of the organization, says there are 20 different owners for the 28 properties. The owners bought the houses thinking the real estate market would improve. It didn’t on those blocks.

 “Some are foreclosed on, some are tax sale, some are being held by investors,“ Sissman says. Officials with the neighborhood, the city and Healthy Neighborhoods are in talks on how to redevelop the remaining vacant houses on Callow Avenue.

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano says the city must use the right tool for each for each neighborhood’s situation. Otherwise it will be a waste of time and money.  While some properties are in neighborhoods where investors are interested, most of the vacant houses in the city – about 10,000 – are in areas where buyers aren’t interested.

He says they have to come up with different ideas for those properties as some vacant buildings become vacant lots.

Julie Day, Deputy Commissioner of Land Use for Baltimore Housing, says the organization will work with communities on short term plans, but that it’s hard to develop a long term plan.

"We're looking at five to ten years; who knows what the market might be,” she says. “Who knows what demand might be?  Who knows what the community might want?”

City and state lawmakers are optimistic Vacants to Value will be successful.

“I think as they’re moving along, they’re adding things,” says City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton. “Just like any other plan, you constantly have to tweak it and add things each year as you improve and look at things.”

Delegate Shawn Tarrant, who represents a Northwest Baltimore district, says the city ought to spend more money to market “success stories.”

“People can see, you know, “Hey I remember I lived next to this rotted out place” or just places that been vacant and now somebody’s in it making it a wonderful home for their family,” he says.

Tarrant, who lives next door to a vacant property, says that he will work with the mayor on legislation in Annapolis that would allow the city to seize vacant properties from owners who fail to fix them up.