Some Baltimore vacants so decrepit city checks them for stability every 10 days

In Baltimore, abandoned houses crumble in the wind. "They've been an emergency for years," resident says.

More than 500 vacant houses in Baltimore are considered at such risk of collapse that city inspectors examine them every 10 days.

Housing officials say they do not knock the houses down immediately because money for demolition is limited — and the city hopes some will stay standing long enough to sell to developers. In the short term, a team of inspectors monitors the fallen-in roofs, bulging walls and severe stress cracks.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she has quadrupled, to $10 million a year, the amount the city spends to tear down abandoned houses. But she acknowledges that it is not enough.

"I don't have a secret money tree in the basement," she said after the first of several houses fell last week. "I cannot write a blank check for these things. We are dealing with decades of blight, abandonment and neglect and trying to reprioritize our appropriations to address this in a comprehensive way.

"It didn't happen overnight; it's not going to change overnight."

The Baltimore Sun requested the housing inspection data after a man was killed in West Baltimore last week when a vacant house fell on him. Four more houses fell down over the weekend amid windy conditions, according to the Fire Department.

Michael Braverman, the deputy commissioner for code enforcement, said the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development is working with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University to flag houses that could be at imminent risk of crumbling after winds rose to 60 mph during the past week. The inspections will determine which houses should be razed immediately, which need to be stabilized and which need to be watched, he said.

'Community in jeopardy'

City housing officials maintain a list of nearly 17,000 vacant buildings — a figure that some groups say woefully undercounts the actual number — and the structures are divided among three categories. About 530 are examined three times a month. Another 3,300 are inspected every 30 days and the rest are inspected every four months, Braverman said. The city tore down about 1,300 in a recent five-year period.

In the wake of the recent building collapses, residents and community activists questioned whether the city is doing enough.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of a West Baltimore community association, said the only abandoned houses knocked down in his neighborhood in recent years were the ones the wind blew over in the past week.

In the 57 blocks that make up the Matthew A. Henson neighborhood, Cheatham said, 324 houses are vacant and boarded up — more than 30 percent. Research indicates that a neighborhood stops growing when 4 percent of its homes are vacant.

People there are desperate for the city to address the blight, said Cheatham, a former president of the Baltimore chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He said residents worry about the children who must walk past the abandoned houses on their way to and from school and agonize about the risk of fires or explosions, as many of the houses are still connected to electricity and gas.

"To have 324 houses in one community, boarded up, some with gas and electric still operable, you have a community in jeopardy," he said.

Rowhouses are expensive to tear down, according to Baltimore housing officials. The city says a typical two-story house costs $14,000 to demolish. Three-story houses can cost up to $20,000. A vacant house can be demolished in less than a day in an emergency, but it takes time to level the lot, plant grass and build a wall to buttress houses to which it may have been attached.

To further complicate the process, Braverman said, most of the vacant properties in the city are privately owned and — unless there is an emergency — the housing department must take owners to court and spend months obtaining environmental clearances and removing hazardous materials.

Braverman said the house in the 900 block of N. Payson St. that killed Thomas Lemmon when it collapsed on him March 28 was not on the list to receive frequent inspections.

Officials say the house had not been condemned because it did not show typical signs of being at risk. Neighbors told The Sun, however, that the house was leaning before wind helped shear it from the one next door.

Lemmon, 69, was crushed in a pile of rubble as he sat in his Cadillac, parked on the street. He died at the hospital.

No one else was reported injured.

More strong winds are expected this week. Gusts were forecast to reach 30 mph Tuesday and Wednesday, and again on Saturday.

Winds reached an estimated 60 mph in parts of Baltimore late Saturday, according to the National Weather Service, felling trees and causing power outages. On Sunday, gusts of up to 53 mph were recorded.

In an attempt to stop more houses from falling, Tamas Budavari, an assistant professor in Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, and a team of three researchers spent hours Tuesday trying to figure out which of the abandoned properties pose the most risk.

Budavari said they sat in front of computers mining the city's databases to identify factors that contributed to the collapse of vacant houses in the past — such as missing roofs, the number of years they were vacant and the height of the building — and searched the list of abandoned properties to find common attributes.

From there, the researchers will identify houses they believe to be most at risk after the recent wind, and suggest which ones city inspectors should re-examine. The researchers have been working with the city on a broader project to study vacant properties.

"We jumped on this, and we are trying to help," he said.

'An emergency for years'

Braverman said the city is constantly evaluating where to steer demolition dollars.

He said officials want to preserve houses that a developer might be interested in buying, rather than tear down a structure that, in most cases, is historic. The housing department, under the Vacants to Values program, also wants to spend money where it would stabilize neighborhoods.

"In an ideal universe, the house gets rehabilitated and you have a neighbor paying taxes next to you," Braverman said. "If we feel it is a public safety issue, it's got to come down, period."

A new joint city and state program, announced in January, calls for more than 100 vacant buildings to be razed in East and West Baltimore, at a rate four times faster than usual. Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Larry Hogan committed to spending a combined $94 million to demolish 4,000 properties over four years. The remaining green space will then be marketed to developers using $600 million in state financing options set aside for Baltimore.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit focused on vacant housing, said Baltimore has one of the strongest programs among post-industrial cities for dealing with abandoned homes.

"Baltimore is actually one of the better ones," Mallach said. "Baltimore simply does not have the resources to get at all the properties that need to come down."

For some in the city, the view is strikingly different.

On a street corner in West Baltimore, Sandtown organizer Ray Kelly watched as an excavator cleared piles of brick, broken windows and wooden beams left from two of the collapsed houses.

"We shouldn't be waiting for them to fall down," Kelly said. "We should be ahead of this."

The houses were across the street from a mural for Freddie Gray, whose death from injuries suffered in police custody last year came to symbolize long-standing problems in some Baltimore neighborhoods.

"For the city, it's an emergency when they fall," Kelly said. "But for us, they've been an emergency for years."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Scott Dance and Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.

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