Many groups are trying to get the city to demolish the vacant properties throughout the city. (Baltimore Sun video)
After decades of stalled promises to tear down the vacant rowhomes that have become symbolic of Baltimore's woes, Gov. Larry Hogan pledged at the start of the year that "thousands" would come down over four years with an infusion of $75 million in state money.
Nine months later, the program, dubbed Project CORE, has barely begun.
Officials had identified more than 370 properties for demolition by the end of 2016, but just 53 properties have been approved for razing, and costs are mounting faster than anticipated — both troubling signs the program could fall short of its goals.
In interviews, city and state officials backed away from previous projections but said it is too early to judge the effectiveness the program, a partnership between the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and Baltimore's housing department.
"It's a tremendous amount of new money both for our administration and the governor, and we expect it to have meaningful results in Baltimore, real palpable results," said Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner at Baltimore Housing. "We're all stepping back from giving a number, and the reason is that it's sort of a moving target."
Funding for the program wasn't approved until April, said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, who described the project as "on schedule and moving ahead."
"This is just beginning," he said.
Baltimoreans are familiar with promises to address vacant properties.
In the 1990s, under Mayor Kurt Schmoke and his housing commissioner, Daniel Henson, the city razed 2,500 abandoned units in three years, only to face a backlash because the new lots, some torn down midblock, were left to fill with weeds and trash. Affordable housing advocates also were outraged to discover the list of tear-downs included dilapidated public housing.
In the 2000s, Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration changed course, assembling blocks of properties for redevelopment under Project 5000. The city's inventory of real estate swelled but efforts to boost property sales fell flat.
Later on, Mayor Sheila Dixon proposed a land bank, but left office before the measure moved forward.
With Vacants to Value, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration worked to target absentee landlords and streamline the sales process, focusing efforts in neighborhoods where private investors might be interested.
As the number of vacant buildings in Baltimore continued to mount — estimates range from about 17,000 to more than 50,000 — the program faced criticism from those who say the approach neglects vast swaths of the city, particularly impoverished African-American neighborhoods.
Rawlings-Blake announced a surge of demolition funding in 2013 — aiming to raze 1,500 homes — but the pace of demolition remained largely unchanged. Over at least the past 10 years, demolitions fluctuated from a low of 150 to a high of 368, for an average of about 270 a year, according to city data.
"I never think they are moving as quickly as they could be," Mark Washington said of the city's demolition efforts.
Washington leads the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. and has pushed the city for years to address vacants on several blocks in the neighborhood, which he believes could be part of a larger redevelopment.
In July, a fire broke out on one of the blocks. The rowhouses in the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue, which has one remaining resident, were destroyed in the two-alarm blaze.
On a recent weekday, Washington stood facing the husks of burned-out buildings as neighbors told him how the fire had melted cars parked across the street. They complained that the structures remain a safety hazard and asked when the city plans to take them down.
"They do act," he said of city officials, "but it's in this very elongated time-frame, and when you have residents who are living in blighted communities with derelict buildings, the resolution can't come fast enough."
The city housing department issued an emergency condemnation and demolition notice after the fire on Fenwick Avenue but is still working to relocate the one resident. Braverman said the city, which owns one of the six vacant buildings, also is trying to notify the other owners.
Announced in January on a block full of vacant homes in Sandtown-Winchester, Project CORE was billed in part as a way to address the weaknesses of earlier programs.
Sandtown-Winchester has been a focus of discussions about blight and poverty in the city; it's the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested. His death last year from injuries sustained in police custody sparked widespread protests and rioting.
Under the new program, the state promised to give the Stadium Authority at least $7.1 million a year in funding for demolition — and the possibility of up to $25 million a year — over four years. Individual projects also can apply to the state for demolition or stabilization funding.
In addition, the state promised to make other existing programs — such as low-income housing tax credits, lending and grant programs — available to projects on sites created by demolitions. The state Department of Housing and Community Development estimates that about $600 million in financing would be available for such redevelopment proposals over four years, though legislative analysts have questioned how that financing would work.
The city is responsible for readying properties for tear-down and maintenance of the lots afterward.
Officials said the tear-down program — Rawlings-Blake referred to it as "demolition dollars on steroids" — has been slow to start, in part because agencies spent time developing best practices in response to neighborhood complaints about previous razing jobs gone wrong.
The new rules include environmental protocols — such as reducing dust by wetting the area and filling the sites with clean fill — plus salvage requirements and community notification.
Those measures added to the cost.
For the first 27 properties, which started coming down this month, the Stadium Authority agreed to pay about $883,000 or almost $33,000 per vacant — about $11,000 more than the average three-story house under a city demolition contract. (None of those figures includes the cost of addressing environmental hazards such as asbestos, services that are paid for separately.)
Mayer, Hogan's spokesman, said the governor is not concerned about the increased costs so far, saying it is important that demolition happen "the right way."
Nneka Nnamdi, 39, who lives in Heritage Crossing next to a vacant, said she's been impressed by the higher standards she's observed with Project CORE demolitions, including wind screens and other measures. Past city tear-downs have left sites strewn with rubble.
"If it's necessary to pay more to ensure the safety of residents for Baltimore City, I think we need to do that," she said. "We also need to make sure, whether it's CORE or city contractors, that people aren't running up the numbers."
Gary McGuigan, a senior vice president at the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the agency expects to continue to adjust bidding requirements for each project and hopes that the costs will come down, as each batch of properties draws more firms to the bidding table. Six firms responded to the first offering; the job went to the lowest of the bidders that cleared a technical review.
The higher costs could be a red flag if they persist, said Stephen J. McGovern, a professor of political science at Haverford College who studied a similar program that Philadelphia launched in 2002.
That city, which faced many of the same issues with increasing vacants as Baltimore, sold nearly $300 million in bonds for the program but fell short of its goals as the cost of demolition spiked and property values in targeted neighborhoods increased.
"That really hurts a program like this," he said.
What comes next
Like the earlier O'Malley program, Project CORE focuses on tearing down clusters of properties to create parcels large enough to be put to new use, whether as green space or for redevelopment.
That's one reason the program is not further along. Officials say it takes time — and money — to assemble full blocks for demolition and redevelopment, a process that often involves acquisition of properties and ground rents, and relocation of residents.
The city released the first Project CORE properties for demolition in June, and another batch in August. About one-third of the 53 properties have been owned by the city for more than five years — and some since the 1990s.
But residents still live in some of the targeted blocks. As a result, about 20 percent of the Project CORE funds are likely to be put toward relocation costs, Braverman said.
Experience from decades of demolition in a number of cities has shown that significant additional resources are needed to spur interest in large tracts of vacant lots, said Jason Hackworth, a professor at the University of Toronto who recently published a paper studying the effects of decades of demolition in Rust Belt cities.
Redirecting existing programs — like Project CORE does — is unlikely to get the job done, he said.
"It's kind of disingenuous because those were already there and they're very, very small related to the problems faced," he said. "If you're serious about this, there needs to be serious funding."
Joyce Smith, 64, president of Operation ReachOut Southwest and co-leader of Baltimore RENEW, a coalition of community groups that have banded together to address the problem of vacants, said it's too early to write off Project CORE, but she's worried that city and state leaders are repeating the mistakes of previous programs, including leaving community members out of discussions.
Smith said the program is based on ideas developed during the urban renewal era, but the intractability of vacant properties suggests a need for new ideas. She proposed developing a program that would initiate discussions with elderly homeowners about what happens to their properties after their death.
"We have a 2016 problem, and they're using 1950s strategies," she said. "Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board."
State officials said this program is different because some demolition monies will be tied to projects initiated by community groups. They also disputed the idea that the financing offered by the state will not be enough.
"That kind of attitude is just something we disagree with, that kind of symbolizes why people haven't taken action before," Mayer said, adding that new money will be directed to Baltimore under the program.
Last month, 36 nonprofit or public entities submitted proposals for 76 city projects, applying for more than $76 million in demolition funds, according to the state. The state expects to select winners in October for the $18 million it has available.
"Going beyond demolition is very important," said John Maneval, a deputy director for community development administration for the state housing department. "We're interested in the redevelopment outcomes, the community benefit outcomes that will be the result of demolition and blight elimination."
Washington is working with Civic Works, which has submitted proposals for Project CORE funding, including $200,000 to help put a long-vacant firehouse on Gorsuch Avenue back to use as a training center for building tiny houses.
He said the neighborhood, close to Lake Montebello, City College and Clifton Park Golf Course, is ripe for investment once vacants are removed.
"Can we transform this community? The answer is yes, because you have the foundation, you have the bones," he said. "What it's going to take is an elimination of the blighting influence."
A different way
Philadelphia razed nearly 500 properties last year with about $9 million, far more than Baltimore tore down.
Philadelphia's Licensing and Inspections Department focuses its efforts on properties that pose safety risks, which it identifies and ranks with mapping tools and in-person inspections. Using public safety orders, the city requires homeowners to fix problems and can tear down problem houses if they don't, sending the bill to the owner.
The process rarely involves property acquisition, an approach Philadelphia leaders said they avoid in part because they don't want to reward or encourage property speculators.
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"To me, public safety is priority No. 1," said David Perri, the department's commissioner. "You need to abate the danger that's caused by unsafe buildings, and if we have to take a property down, then we have to take it down."
Baltimore could take such an approach, threatening condemnation if property owners don't fix public safety hazards, Braverman acknowledged. In fact, a surge of emergency demolitions ordered this year after a house collapse in March killed a man in West Baltimore helped lift the demolition numbers to their highest in at least a decade.
But given the scale of Baltimore's problems, it's important to support other ongoing investments — whether that's a school or other private developments — to get the biggest impact, Braverman said.
Restricting efforts to a strategy like Philadelphia's wouldn't be effective, likely leading to a repeat of the midblock demolitions of the 1990s.
"We've made the decision that that's not the best use of the funds," he said. "That would be chasing numbers."