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$75M plan to demolish thousands of Baltimore's vacant houses now relies on other groups, new accounting

Gov. Larry Hogan stood on a blighted street in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, a demolition crew ready to get to work. He had heard residents’ calls for action on the vacant rowhouses that pockmark the city, he said. Now he was pledging $75 million to tear thousands of them down.

"I’m a guy on a mission who wants to get things done and wants to get them done now,” Hogan said that day in January 2016.

The Republican governor laid out Project CORE: a plan to demolish entire blocks of abandoned houses at a time. He would put the Maryland Stadium Authority in charge of the work. The authority, experienced in contracting, sought a firm to oversee the demolition of 4,000 units over four years.

Eighteen months later, the stadium authority had spent just $5 million on the effort, the state says. Only 131 houses had been demolished. Baltimore has more than 16,000 vacant houses, the city says.

With plans to tear down more buildings mired in the city’s system for approving properties for demolition, the state is turning money over to community organizations to jump-start redevelopment projects instead. And the way officials describe their goals has changed: Now they speak not of demolitions, but of “units of blight removed.”

Leaders in parts of the city that have benefited from the funding for community groups say they welcome the money. It is being used to help build an apartment complex near Coppin State University, bulldoze a notorious housing complex on North Avenue and renovate an abandoned lithograph plant in East Baltimore.

Councilman Robert Stokes, whose East Baltimore district has seen a significant infusion of money, said it makes sense to spend on redevelopment projects rather than demolish vacant houses only to leave vacant lots in their wake.

“I think it’s great,” Stokes said. “I'm really happy about my district and the direction it’s going.”

But state Del. Antonio Hayes, who represents much of West Baltimore, said some people in his district are frustrated. They heard about a plan to sweep vacants aside, and haven’t seen progress.

“At the community level when you lay out a vision, when you make that type of commitment, they may not understand all of the bureaucracy, but their expectation is that is going to happen," Hayes said. “I wish when the announcement was made, some expectations were more clearly defined.”

The state is pursuing a new strategy, said Michael White, chief of staff of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. But the end goal of transforming Baltimore remains the same.

“How we’re going to get there, I think, has changed,” he said. “Maybe will change again.”

A spokesman for Hogan said results are all that matter.

"The people of Baltimore city couldn't care less about what bureaucratic process is responsible for demolishing blight in their neighborhoods," spokesman Doug Mayer said. "They just want to see it get done, and that is exactly what is happening."

Mayor Catherine Pugh says she wants to see the pace of demolitions sped up. She’s set a target of at least 1,200 a year.

“I don’t want a long lengthy process,” she told members of the City Council recently. “I don’t have time to wait for people to process all of this stuff.”

“I want to use every single dollar the state has given us.”

In January 2016, the state planned to give $75 million to the stadium authority to hire contractors that would take down whole blocks of blighted properties identified by the city. Authority documents spoke of demolishing 400 or more vacant structures in the first few months, and 4,000 over four years.

State Housing Secretary Kenneth Holt said recently that the figure was “arbitrary.”

Now the state is focusing on units of blight removed. That can mean demolitions. But it can also mean blighted units that are rehabilitated. And the majority have been removed by the city, without state help.

Using the new accounting, Project CORE had reached 1,186 units removed by the end of June, the most recent data available.

The figure includes 691 units the city demolished with its own money, 364 units the state has helped outside groups to rehabilitate or take down — about 200 of them at a single apartment complex — and the 131 units demolished by the stadium authority.

White said Pugh’s goal of 1,200 demolitions should be attainable. He said officials have now cleared the way for demolitions “to shoot up like a rocket.”

“As a team I think that's a realistic number,” he said.

The pace of demolitions carried out by the Stadium Authority did pick up at the beginning of the year. More were finished between April and June than in the preceding 15 months. But after farming out work to take down 168 houses, the agency hasn’t hired a contractor to do any more and city officials have only approved 20 more for demolition.

Preparing a block for demolition can take two years. Very few blocks in Baltimore are completely unpopulated. Remaining residents must be guided into new housing. In some cases, the city must get court approval to demolish a house.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said he’s confident the process can be streamlined. One idea, he said, is taking down half a block at a time, if that means avoiding having to move people.

“We’re constantly reviewing the process to create efficiencies,” he said.

Pugh said she’s exploring other avenues. The mayor said she’s directed City Solicitor Andre Davis to look into whether the city can make greater use of emergency powers to push ahead with demolitions. And she said she’ll assign her innovation squad to study other options.

“I want to eliminate as much red tape as possible,” Pugh said.

In the meantime, the state has pumped Project CORE money into other efforts. Some of them involve demolition, but it’s not a requirement.

At one major project touted by the governor’s office — renovation of the Hoen Lithograph building on East Biddle Street — the money has been used for repairs.

White said giving the money to community groups ensures that the state is responsive to the desires of the people of Baltimore, and not just dictating the approach it thinks best.

“The community part of this has taken on a very important role,” he said.

Another proposal that received state funding is a plan to redevelop a vacant former lumber yard on West North Avenue into 67 apartments and some shops. The project received a $2 million state loan, to be forgiven if the developers meet their goals.

Dan Ellis, director of Neighborhood Housing Services, a partner in the effort, said it would never have got started without the money.

“The Project CORE money really took a project that was financially unviable and made it viable,” he said. “It’s really a big deal for West Baltimore.”

iduncan@baltsun.com

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