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Consumer advocate: Why use almost all the city's share of mortgage settlement on demolition?

Vacant homes on Biddle Street in East Baltimore
(Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun)

Should Baltimore spend almost all the $10 million it's getting from the nationwide mortgage settlement on demolishing vacant homes?

That's the city's plan. Marceline White questions the wisdom of that idea.

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White, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition and a Bolton Hill resident, wonders why the city isn't instead putting a sizable chunk of the money toward rehabbing, adding to the stock of livable homes and hopefully also the number of city residents.

"I live in the city -- I would certainly like to see more people come into the city," White said. "It's better for the city, it's better for neighborhoods, it's better for the tax base. ... Rather than tearing down neighborhoods, why not try to restore neighborhoods?"

This speaks to a long-running debate that readers have had here: knock down or rebuild?

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City housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter said the plan to use about $9.5 million of the settlement money for the former purpose -- demolishing about 700 homes -- comes down to a judgment about marketability.

"Baltimore has lost about a third of its population over the last 50 years, leaving behind 16,000 vacant buildings," she said in an email. "Most of these buildings are in very distressed areas, and represent excess housing stock that simply can't be absorbed by Baltimore's current population, even as we begin to attract the 10,000 families the Mayor is working to bring to the City."

The city wants to demolish a lot more than 700 homes, but for that group of teardowns, it's targeting blocks that are wholly or largely vacant to cut down on costs. The empty land left over could then be put to new uses, Porter said, such as "site assemblage to create redevelopment opportunities, storm water mitigation, urban agriculture, and the creation of open green spaces."

White said she's concerned about the new uses, too -- whether nearby residents will be involved "in a meaningful way" in the decision about what happens next.

"There's lots of ways you can creatively engage a community in having a voice in what happens in their neighborhood," White said. "I'd like to hear how the mayor's office is planning to do that."

Porter said in her email that city officials "will continue to consult with communities as we have done in neighborhoods across the City" about post-demolition uses.

"Baltimore has a number of programs that allow residents living near vacant lots to take ownership of those lots, or to use them for community gardens or other projects without taking ownership," Porter added.

White had another question: Why does Baltimore say the average cost to tear down a home in the city is about $13,000 while Detroit -- which is razing thousands of its vacants -- puts its average cost at $8,000?

"Detroit doesn't have rowhomes," Porter said in response. "So they don't have the same issues."

The city's $13,000 estimate doesn't include the cost for shoring up party walls when a vacant comes down next to a home that's staying up. That would add an additional $14,000 on average, the city estimates. So I was a bit befuddled by Porter's answer: Why would the base cost be significantly higher than Detroit's if the extra expense for neighboring homes isn't built in?

Porter attributed it to the added difficulty of taking down a brick rowhome on a narrow lot vs. a house surrounded by a yard.

"In terms of costs, Baltimore's housing stock is primarily composed of brick built row houses with shared walls, and their structure makes them significantly more expensive than many other cities' free-standing, wood homes to demolish," Porter said in her email. "We have spoken with demolition operations management in Detroit and other cities, and are not aware of any other city that can average lower costs for attached, brick built row home demolition than Baltimore."

Got a housing news tip or experience to share? (Or just want to tell me something?) Email me at jhopkins@baltsun.com.

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