City-owned vacants decline under Vacants to Value program

Baltimore's Vacants to Value program, a city initiative to address blighted neighborhoods, has reduced the number of city-owned vacant properties and helped spur economic development in some neighborhoods, according to a new report on the program.

The five-year evaluation of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's signature housing program comes as the city's new mayor moves forward with plans to overhaul the city's housing and planning departments, and shapes her own strategy for reducing blight in Baltimore's neighborhoods.

The city commissioned the report for $113,930 from the Center for Community Progress, a Flint, Mich.-based nonprofit that focuses on the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. The center worked with the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute and Schaefer Center at University of Baltimore to evaluate the program.

Michael Braverman, the acting commissioner of the Department of Housing & Community Development, said the report showed the program has made progress and is worth maintaining, but he expects Mayor Catherine E. Pugh to put her own stamp on it by expanding demolition activity and pushing to include more city departments in the initiative.

"We're looking for collaborative investment," Braverman said. "Mayor Pugh is committed to agency collaboration and we're comfortable that those kinds of efforts will be addressed citywide."

For example, Braverman said, his deparment could work with the Public Works Department to speed up street, sidewalk and alley repairs — improvements that are often delayed when there is no homeowner to take on part of the cost. The housing department also could work with law enforcement to improve safety and reduce crime in areas with vacant homes, he said.

Such improvements could make vacant home areas more appealing to private developers, a primary goal of the Vacants to Value program, Braverman said.

Launched in 2010, Vacants to Value steps up code enforcement in areas where homes are vacant or abandoned and encourages developers to rehabilitate those properties.

The new report showed that while the total number of vacant and abandoned homes has gone up since 2010, the number of vacant properties owned by the city has declined.

There were a total of 16,548 vacant and abandoned homes in the city in 2014, 483 more than in 2010.

Over the same time period the number of city-owned vacant properties declined from 3,282 to 2,620, which Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute, said is a sign of the program's success.

"When the city owns a property, the Vacants to Value program has demonstrated it's good at getting it in the hands of people who will bring it to good use," Iyer said.

The program relies on private developers taking interest in and buying up vacant properties, which is one reason the program has had the most success in neighborhoods where the city owns vacants or where development activity is stirring already, Iyer said.

"The Vacants to Value program very much buoys up activity that may be brewing, accelerates it and serves as a catalyst," she said.

Spurring development in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, where the city doesn't own vacant homes and where there are few other draws for developers is more challenging, Iyer said.

Braverman said Pugh will push to accelerate demolitions as a way to address blight in some of those areas.

"We need to identify the type of demolition that will stabilize blocks," Braverman said.

Removing blighted properties can improve the quality of life of residents who live in neighboring blocks and address public safety concerns. The empty lots could be more appealing to developers who want to build new or could be turned into green space, which also improves a neighborhood, he said.

The city issued 430 demolition permits in 2014, up from 258 in 2009, before Vacants to Value started, according to the report.

The high cost of demolishing homes is one reason the city hasn't done more of them. The city estimates that it would cost $180 million to tear down the 3,500 least expensive vacant homes, Braverman said.

The city's budget for fiscal year 2018 includes about $10 million a year for demolitions, which is on par with demolition spending in past years.

Gov. Larry Hogan last year announced the state would spend $75 million for blight elimination initiatives in the city, with $28.4 million earmarked for demolitions, over the next four years.

Daniel Ellis, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, said he is pleased Pugh plans to continue investing in Vacants to Value and thinks demolitions — when done in the right blocks — could improve city neighborhoods.

For demolitions to work and be supported by the community, the city must be sensitive to homeowners who live in a predominantly vacant block, Ellis said.

Since Baltimore's rowhomes are largely connected, demolitions often require taking down an entire block of homes, he said.

"The equally important piece is what's the follow up," Ellis said. "Have we gone from a bunch of vacant houses to a bunch of vacant lots? That's not what anybody wants, and the city doesn't either."

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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