Baltimore is treading water on vacant houses. Here's what it means and what to do about it.

The internet peanut gallery has basically two reactions to Sun reporter Ian Duncan’s investigation revealing that, despite millions of dollars spent and eight years of effort, Baltimore has only managed to drive down its stock of vacant houses from 16,800 to 16,500. Some call it one more story of a city government that can’t do anything right. Others see evidence that Baltimore is a “cesspool” of crime and drugs that anyone who can would flee at the earliest opportunity. (Both strains of argument tend to veer into the theory that the real problem here is that Democrats are in charge.) Neither one of these is particularly apt in explaining what’s going on, and they’re definitely not helpful in figuring out what to do next.

It’s not that Baltimore has spent millions to take down 300 houses. It’s that more are being abandoned, whether because the occupants move away or die or because speculators buy them and sit on them hoping for an eventual payday. The fact that the city (and state, which has a significant partnership with Baltimore, thanks to an initiative by Gov. Larry Hogan) don’t tear down buildings faster isn’t a sign of incompetence. It’s that you can’t just take a wrecking ball and bulldozer to whatever empty house you want. There are significant legal issues at play for the city to get clear title to a property, as well as major environmental concerns (lead, asbestos, etc.). And then there’s the fact that most of the houses in question are attached to others, presenting structural issues.

Moreover, the city and state have tried to be strategic about which house they demolish in an effort to produce larger swaths of cleared land. That increases the odds of redevelopment but also ramps up the complications — not the least of which is the fact that few blocks are completely unoccupied. That’s why the flow chart describing the city’s process for identifying and clearing a block of houses has 64 steps. If Baltimore went faster, it would be dangerous, expose the city to legal risk, displace people from homes they don’t want to leave and potentially waste money.

As to the argument that the still-high stock of vacants reflects a city in a death spiral, we can’t argue with the fact that Baltimore’s problems — particularly high crime, poor schools and sparse economic opportunities in some neighborhoods — are driving continued population loss. But the picture is far more complicated than the narrative of unremitting decline would suggest. Even as homes are being abandoned, the city has seen a massive apartment building spree downtown as well as new single- and multi-family housing projects scattered throughout the city, from Locust Point to Uplands to Hampden to Lauraville. The latest data show median home prices in Baltimore City are up 10.7 percent in the last year, growth well above the regional average.

People are fleeing some parts of the city and flocking to others, and the investment in some communities is still a long way from spilling over into some of Baltimore’s most marginalized neighborhoods. That’s not a reason to abandon hope, it’s a call to be strategic about how the city approaches its role in fostering redevelopment. Since the days of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value program, Baltimore has prioritized investments in neighborhoods where the market conditions for redevelopment are at least close to favorable, and that idea continues in the Hogan/Mayor Catherine Pugh Project CORE. which shifted its goal from simply knocking down as many vacants as possible to eliminating blight more broadly, whether through demolition or investment in rehabilitation.

The primary question Baltimore should concern itself with is not whether it is reducing the number of vacant houses to any particular level. It needs to demolish those that pose a public health and safety hazard or those that foster crime (which Governor Hogan has recently focused on), but the broader goal needs to be facilitating reinvestment and helping create communities people will choose to live in. The massive 21st Century Schools construction spree provides opportunities to coordinate new housing with new, modern school buildings. Baltimore’s tax structure could be reformed to incentivize redevelopment and to disincentivize speculation. Tools like community land trusts can help transform vacant spaces into vibrant neighborhood hubs.

Finally, we need to view this as a regional issue. Governor Hogan has inherently done so by involving the state as heavily as he has, but local leaders in the suburbs ought to see the degree to which Baltimore City revitalization is in their interests, too. The more attractive Baltimore is for redevelopment the less pressure there will be for the suburbs to accept population growth that is disruptive in communities that are already built out and expensive in terms of infrastructure, new schools and so on. We have argued before that it’s past time for a conversation about regional government or a regional school district, but at the very least, we ought to be having more robust regional conversations about where and how we incentivize development.

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