Program tries to streamline purchase of thousands of vacant properties

Baltimore has 16,000 problems. They sit quietly, largely concentrated in two main clumps just outside the center of the city, starbursting into the periphery. Vacant homes—left or abandoned or ignored or forgotten—have become the scourge of the city. And they’re not going anywhere, not quickly anyway.

But gradually, the city is beginning to check a handful of problem homes off its 16,000-point to-do list. Baltimore is now a year into a program it calls “Vacants to Value,” which targets vacant homes in neighborhoods around the city for renovation, redevelopment or demolition. They’ve tackled 748 of them so far.

“We’re beginning to see movement,” says Cheron Porter, director of communications at Baltimore Housing.

The program is intended to streamline the process of buying vacant homes by lifting certain regulations and enabling people to obtain titles to homes much faster. Another main part of the program streamlines enforcement. Porter says the city’s been issuing citations to the owners of vacant properties in order to get them to address problems. Each citation that’s not acted upon draws a $900 fine to the property owner. “That begins the process,” Porter says.

But that process is a daunting one. Of the 16,000 vacant homes in the city, about 11,000 are in areas that have very low market demand or which are “severely distressed,” according to Porter. Convincing a property owner to bring their house up to code is a lot easier when they have the money to do it, and even more so if there’s a likely buyer not far behind. But sometimes the city can’t even find an owner to cite.

“There’s an assumption that it was just people letting these properties go down, but sometimes they’re vacant because people die and they didn’t will it to anyone,” Porter says, “or they just left.”

And that’s what many people did. With the evaporation of industries and jobs giants like Bethlehem Steel, Baltimore has watched its population shrink dramatically. Between 1950 and 2011, the city lost more than 300,000 people. While people in cities like Las Vegas and Cleveland lost their homes to foreclosure, homes in Baltimore lost their people.

“We’ve gone through 50 years of disinvestment in the community,” Porter says. “A problem that takes 50 years to make isn’t going to go away overnight.”

Nor will it be solved in broad strokes. The city is taking a pragmatic approach to the problem of rampant vacancies and the blight they cause by focusing efforts on those areas most likely to turn around.

One example is East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood. Nestled in one of those concentrated areas of vacancies, Oliver has struggled with empty homes, but Porter says it hasn’t been hit as hard hit as many other sections. Johns Hopkins Hospital is right next door, which means the neighborhood has the added benefits of built-in jobs and a much higher likelihood that vacants won't stay empty for long. Porter says targeting Oliver, and other neighborhoods like it, is what’s making the program a success.

“The first thing is to stabilize the communities with a few vacancies,” says Porter. “A block with only one or two vacant houses is easier to deal with than a block with 15.”

But some worry that the city’s incremental approach to its vacancy problem sacrifices vision for action. And by prioritizing the purchase of homes by private developers, the city is basically handing out what could have potentially become a valuable set of assets.

“This is a good step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go anywhere near towards what they need to be doing, which is preserving land for future planning efforts and long-term development projects,” says Mel Freeman. He’s executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, which was part of a coalition in 2007 that was trying to help create a land bank in the city to buy up and hold on to empty land for future redevelopment.

Typically formed as a quasi-governmental non-profit with a board made up of local agency officials, housing advocates and planners, the land bank approach has been successfully employed in cities like Cleveland and St. Louis. And up until early 2010, it seemed likely to be adopted in Baltimore. But when land bank backer Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned amid an embezzlement scandal, the new mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, ditched the land bank plan for an approach wholly controlled by the city. Vacants to Value launched in November of 2010.

“No one in this administration has ever said this is a solution to it all,” says Porter. “We’ve certainly had growing pains, and we’re looking to make improvements.”

And though the gains may seem modest, Porter and the city of Baltimore are confident that the approach is what the city needs. She contends that Vacants to Value is doing its job for now, but that the scale of the city’s problem will require continued attention and innovation.

“We’re going to continue on this path knowing that we may need to be flexible,” Porter says. “We’ve got a long road ahead.”

748 down. 15,252 to go.

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