Vacants to value: growing Baltimore block by block

In East Baltimore, the 1200 block of North Broadway was once almost entirely vacant. Now a woman who moved to the city from Parkville has made it her family's home. There were once 25 vacants on this block; only six remain, all of which are under construction.

Farther south, a man whose home has been in his family for three generations has seen a transformation on the 200 block of North Madeira Street. Eleven long-vacant properties have been sold or auctioned to developers, the street and sidewalks have been repaved, and a stream of new neighbors is moving in. Around the corner, a longtime resident began renovating homes on Mullikin Street, building on the momentum of Madeira Street's revitalization.

In Northwest Baltimore on Violet Avenue, where an entire block of formerly vacant homes is being renovated, a nurse from Montgomery County is the first new homeowner. Farther north, long blighted properties in Central Park Heights have been transformed into the state of the art Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation Field in a new seven acre park abutting the C.C. Jackson Recreation Center.

The changes happening now in communities across the city are no coincidence. They are part of Mayor Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value initiative ( to address vacant and abandoned buildings in Baltimore. The innovation behind Vacants to Value is that it carefully aligns community development tools with neighborhood market conditions. It capitalizes on the city's existing strengths — institutions like Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute College of Art, Morgan and Coppin State universities; recreational assets like Patterson and Druid Hill parks; and the acclaimed historic fabric of Baltimore city neighborhoods — to spur reinvestment. The ripple effect of large-scale redevelopment efforts in areas such as the East Baltimore Development Initiative can be seen in the Oliver community, which had long suffered from blight, abandonment and the accompanying crime, drugs, violence and fear. Vacant properties are down in Oliver by a third since 2010, and new families are moving into renovated homes. Barclay, Remington and Station North are other neighborhoods that are experiencing rejuvenation with Vacants to Value.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has made a commitment to grow Baltimore by 10,000 families in the next decade. Vacants to Value supports that goal by preserving and enhancing our city through a series of transformations that attract new residents and businesses. It also brings relief to long-term residents: the senior widow who lives next to the roofless vacant that is flooding her home; the young couple having difficulty purchasing homeowner's insurance due to adjacent vacant properties; the proud veteran who meticulously maintains his house while surrounding blocks slowly deteriorate, his largest asset losing value year after year.

During the latter half of the 20th Century, cities across the nation suffered the devastation of disinvestment as residents fled to the suburbs in droves. Baltimore became a "shrinking city," left with areas of extensive blight and a severely diminished tax base. The blight and abandonment that took place over 50 years cannot be undone overnight. The mayor's 10-Year Plan focuses on strengthening neighborhoods through property-tax cuts, a fourfold increase in demolition funding, infrastructure repairs, housing reinvestment, green spaces and new school construction in an unprecedented coordination of efforts by city agencies.

Block by block, Vacants to Value is making a visible difference in Baltimore. Since its launch in November 2010, Vacants to Value has been the catalyst for the rehabilitation of 1,500 vacant properties, the demolition of 700 dilapidated structures, the award of over 500 homebuyer assistance grants and the adoption and greening of over 800 lots by community groups.

Our efforts are data driven and market based. Cities including Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia have sought our advice because of the systems and metrics we put in place and the progress we have made. The initiative complements and supports the efforts of our development partners and their significant commitment of private capital. However, such investment cannot address every need we will face in the coming years. State and federal support for the program remain critical.

Vacants to Value has earned national and international acclaim for its successes. Last week, it was recognized by the Urban Land Institute's Terwilliger Center for its contribution to increasing Baltimore's workforce housing opportunities. The Clinton Global Initiative selected Vacants to Value as one of its Commitments to Action. The program has also been chosen as a semi-finalist for the Citi/Financial Times Urban Ingenuity Award (the winner will be announced next month).

Today, as we celebrate Vacants to Value's third anniversary, I am proud of all that has been achieved and look forward to future successes. Along with investments like the mayor's $1.1-billion school construction effort, Vacants to Value will strengthen and renew the city, build on its assets, and help it continue to grow.

Paul T. Graziano is the housing commissioner for the city of Baltimore. His email is

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