On March 28, when 900 N. Payson St. fell on Thomas Lemmon, a 69-year-old retired truck driver in his prized Cadillac, it was one more tragic reminder of the dangers lurking in poor city neighborhoods. Lemmon died, a city contractor cleared the rubble, and things continued as normal in the West Baltimore neighborhood.
Then, four more houses toppled during wind gusts on April 3, requiring immediate demolitions. City officials condemned four other properties this month, at least one of which was supposed to be under renovation, according to building permit records.
In this, Baltimore is just like other rust belt city, according to Michael Braverman, Deputy Commissioner for Code Enforcement. Houses fall down, sometimes on top of people, and that's just how it is: another problem that is too expensive for a city to fix.
"It's a significant capital dollar problem that legacy cities like Baltimore and Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo are struggling with," Braverman told WYPR's Sheilah Kast on April 7. "Unfortunately, you know, we're in an environment where it's not likely we're going to get the help from the federal government that we need to capitalize the kinds of approaches that we need to take to manage this kind of inventory, which, in the big picture, you know, is the result of 50 or 60 years of macroeconomic changes."
Baltimore's collapsing houses are indeed an old story—as are windy or snowy weekends that take down multiple houses. Parts of 34 houses collapsed in the 2010 blizzards, 14 of which included a "roof or a wall," the housing department reported then. Two of those were full demolitions, one of which was city-owned. Ten years ago, Braverman and his boss, City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, assured citizens that their department would keep people safe from this urban hazard. "[R]esidents should be assured that we are prepared to move quickly to demolish or stabilize any building that poses a threat to life or property," Graziano wrote in a 2006 letter to City Paper.
Despite this promise, in 2016, buildings continue to fall at about the same rate.
City Paper first examined the city's policies surrounding house collapses in 2006. We discovered about 30 buildings were falling down every year, requiring emergency demolitions after the fact, in the early 2000s. There were then thousands of buildings recommended by building inspectors for demolition because they were unsafe and uninhabitable. The dilapidated structures would remain on the list for years, sometimes decades. Braverman said he had already reformed the system then, putting hundreds of especially unstable buildings on a special list to be inspected every 10 days, while taking thousands of less dangerous structures off the list, and inspecting them less often.
The city did get a better handle on the problem after the City Paper stories. Between 2006 and 2009, only 61 demolitions were undertaken—39 fewer than were logged in the three-year period before that.
But the number of city-owned buildings that collapsed each year stayed about the same, the data showed. And demolition costs increased—to about $28,000 on average for each emergency job. (Braverman, who did not speak to City Paper and declined to appear on-air with this writer and the director of Housing Policy Watch, Carol Ott, told Kast that the current cost is lower—about $22,000 for a three story building, but that figure apparently does not include site grading or reinforcement of the exterior wall of the adjacent structure).
And the pattern remained the same, with spates of collapses during moderately-high wind: On the weekend of Jan. 14-15, 2006, when wind gusts of up to 40 mph were recorded, the city responded to eight full or partial building collapses. In the 2006-2009 period, the largest one-day tally of emergency events was Dec. 31, 2008, when four buildings fell down. Three more collapsed five weeks later, on Feb. 12, 2009. Two of those buildings were city-owned.
After the latest spate of collapses, Braverman told Kast he'd change some things. "We're analyzing every single end of group structure right now," he said. "We'll take into account unpredictable weather conditions."
He also told the radio host that the city is "going to be looking at a new standard of 'imminent danger.'"
There have been 32 emergency demolitions so far in fiscal year 2016, Braverman said. The fiscal year ends on June 30.
In other words, since Braverman took the job more than a decade ago, the number of building collapses in Baltimore City at first dropped to about 20 per year, then increased again to more than 30. City Paper asked Baltimore Housing for clearer data, and Tania Baker, the department spokesperson, emailed to say she was working on getting answers.
But how common are building collapses in other cities?
In Buffalo, five buildings collapsed in the past year, according to James Comerford, that city's commissioner of permits and inspections. With a population of 260,000, Buffalo is about two-fifths Baltimore's size. Scaled up, that would equate to 13 collapses in a Baltimore-sized Buffalo, well under even our best years. But Buffalo has lost almost as many residents as Baltimore—about 270,000 since the 1960 census. So its half-century legacy of abandoned buildings is on par with our city—and arguably worse, since its remaining tax base is so much smaller.
Comerford says his department has a team that tracks "the worst of the worst" of its buildings. "Most of them (except a few city owned) are in housing court," he writes in an email. "Overall, we average about 500 housing demolitions per year. From 2007 to 2010 we were doing over a thousand per year, but the state and Feds cut our funding back, so we had to reduce our removals. Since 2006 we have torn down [public & private] over 6,500 structures. We are on the down side of what was a very serious blight problem in our neighborhood a few years ago."
Philadelphia saw something like 1,100 partial building collapses in 2014, according to Karen Guss, the communications director for that city's Department of Licenses and Inspections. But she cautions that the figure isn't comparable to Baltimore's 30: "We counted everything," she says. "Most of them are not what you're talking about—where a whole wall goes."
Guss says the city's computer system would not allow her to give more precise figures. But the city does maintain two lists to prioritize which buildings should come down soonest. The "imminent danger" list has 265 structures on it, she says, while the "unsafe" list has about 5,000.
The average Philadelphia demolition costs $16,500.
Philadelphia, with about twice Baltimore's population (down from 2 million in 1960) demolishes about 500 buildings a year because they are imminently dangerous or unsafe, Guss says. Like Braverman, she says the decision the city's 20 emergency response unit inspectors make about which buildings to take down first has no "magical formula"—and requires a bit of luck. "It's very difficult because—we're very focused on this problem," she says. "But every day we hold our breath because there is no way to know."
Recently, the front wall of a commercial building in Philly fell on a car, with a man inside it. The man was hospitalized briefly, Guss says—a close call.
The inspectors also pay attention to weather forecasts, Guss says. "If we know there's going to be 60 mile-per-hour winds, we take that into account. But there's no way to go back into our list and take that into account for all 200 of them."
Guss estimates it would cost $85 million to take down all of Philadelphia's imminently dangerous and unsafe buildings—the ones that are currently on those lists. "This is a problem facing many cities, and in many ways it's also a problem of poverty," she says.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan took office two years ago and, with the help of a $120 million federal grant, has overseen 7,600 house-demolitions since then, though not without contracting shenanigans.
A state contractor has been charged with falsifying bills, and the per-house demolition cost there has recently fallen from about $16,000 to under $14,000. That city has 40,000 vacant structures that are due for demolition, but figures about collapses are hard to come by, and not really comparable to Baltimore: not only is Detroit larger than Baltimore (there are 680,000 residents—a million fewer than were there in 1960), it's also more sprawling, with most houses made of wood and detached from their neighbors. The danger from collapsing single family frame houses is significant to any who are in or around them, but is not much like a brick Baltimore rowhouse hard by the sidewalk where kids walk past on their way home from school.
And Detroit has another advantage over Baltimore—and Buffalo and Philadelphia: a $2 billion pot of federal money dedicated to demolition.
Spurred by Midwestern senators, Congress this year included a provision that allows the Treasury Department to shift $2 billion into its "Hardest Hit Fund," a pool of cash filled after the economic collapse of 2008, which was originally meant in part to keep banks and other lenders afloat under the weight of predatory and fraudulent mortgages. Since 2013, the fund has quietly shifted to pay for demolition of vacant and blighted houses which, as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told the Detroit Free Press, "pose a growing threat to the public safety and economic well-being of communities."
But the Hardest Hit Fund only applies to the 18 states—and Washington, D.C.—which were originally targeted under the TARP—Troubled Asset Relief Program. Michigan, Ohio, California, Florida, and even New Jersey make the list. New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—where the dangers posed by collapsing buildings is arguably greater—do not.
In January, Gov. Larry Hogan announced what he called a $700 million plan to tear down and re-develop vacant properties in Baltimore. Most of the pledge was a promise of developer incentives, but $94 million is supposed to come in cash, over four years, to take down 4,000 vacant properties. Jay Brodie, former director of the Baltimore Development Corporation, called it unprecedented. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called it "demolition dollars on steroids."
But as Braverman explained, most of the new money will be targeted to whole-block demolition, to clear land for developers—not single-building demolition to ameliorate blight and peril from poor blocks.
The man sitting on the marble stoop at 2228 E. Madison is just waiting for the bus. The two-story row house is long abandoned, like the whole block, and appears to be close to collapse. Asked if he'd noticed that the brick wall he was sitting under had already bowed enough to pop off the concrete Formstone, the man stands up, looks at the damage, and scurries quickly away.
Next door, perched on a "Greatest City in America" bench, a woman who is also waiting for the bus allows that she doesn't feel particularly safe in the shadow of these decrepit buildings. On the end unit, 2224, an inch-wide vertical crack has opened up in the concrete and brick, running from the window to the roofline 10 feet to the right of the cantilevered entryway. Google maps shows it's been like that since at least last August.
The back wall of one house has already fallen. A leg-thick tree grows through the window of another. According to state tax records, all four are owned by the City of Baltimore.
Across the street, 2223 E. Madison has a yellow placard, dated March 29, warning people away. "Emergency Condemnation and Demolition Notice," it says. There's a tree growing through the back of this one, too, amid loose and fallen bricks. The woman who lives in the house that's attached to it sticks her head from a second story window. "That's just the back," she says of the scary notice. "The owner says he's going to fix it."
She gives her name as Rhonda. She says she doesn't know her neighbor's name. The collapsing house has not damaged her home so far, she adds.
The owner is listed as Baltimore Redevelopment Project, LLC, a Parkville-domiciled shell company whose actual office is in Harlem, at an architectural firm called Body Lawson Associates. When the city sold this house to the company in August of 2014 with other properties for a total of $43,000, the tree growing from the second story rear window was even bigger than it is now. The sale was made through the centerpiece of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's anti-blight initiative, the "Vacants to Value" program, which promises to return dilapidated houses to productive use quickly through careful vetting of buyers and strict code enforcement.
"The plan is to renovate," says Ralph McKoy, Baltimore Redevelopment Project, LLC's managing partner. "We had a contractor look at it this week, and we're going to shore it up." Though his company pulled a permit to rehab the house in January of 2015 (which has since expired), he says the actual redevelopment is part of a project his firm is working on.