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Here’s how Baltimore City is using QR codes to help address the problem of vacant homes

Hundreds of QR codes have appeared on boarded-up homes throughout Baltimore over the past month, as part of a city effort to help residents seeking information on vacant properties.

Last year, the Baltimore City Council moved to require housing officials to place signs on the city’s roughly 15,600 vacant properties, about 1,350 of which are city-owned, advertising how neighbors can access information about each one.

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When scanned, a QR code on the signs directs residents to a preexisting Department of Housing and Community Development page, where they can search for ownership information and other records. The signs also direct residents to call 410-396-0896 to access the information, or dial 311 if the property needs to be cleaned or boarded.

The signs could be a boon for activists eager to inform communities about vacant properties, and for neighbors seeking contact information for owners when problems arise. But reaching owners can prove challenging, and that’s just the first step in a long process aimed at reducing blighted property.

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As of June 29, city officials had placed the signs on 655 vacant properties, said Tammy Hawley, spokeswoman for the city’s housing department.

Code enforcers have been placing signs on the relevant properties while making their rounds, Hawley said. Originally, the bill called for property owners to place the signs themselves, or face daily fines. But officials cited logistical problems with that requirement.

A "Vacant Property" sign on an abandoned property has a QR code which can reveal information about the owners of the home. This home is on the 900 block of Bennett Place.
A "Vacant Property" sign on an abandoned property has a QR code which can reveal information about the owners of the home. This home is on the 900 block of Bennett Place. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The department is hopeful the signs will raise awareness among city residents about the challenges of tackling vacancies and blight.

“We think that this helps everyone understand what we’re up against with these absent owners,” Hawley said.

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For much of the last decade, the number of vacant properties in the city was between 16,000 and 17,000. In 2016, the state announced a major funding scheme — $94 million over four years for demolitions and $600 million in subsidies to encourage redevelopment. Three years later, the city announced a goal of dropping the number of vacant homes below 15,000 by the summer of 2020. But as officials have demolished vacant homes, more have sprung up in their place.

The signs can only do so much, said Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director at the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland. Sometimes the properties are owned by individuals who have since died. Sometimes the listed owner is really a limited liability company, and finding contact information for a relevant person can prove challenging. So frustrated neighbors who come upon and scan the QR codes might hit dead ends more often than not, Ott said.

“You’re constantly chasing people down; you’re chasing companies down; you’re chasing ownership records,” Ott said. “And it’s a lot like playing whack-a-mole.”

Solving the puzzle, and then trying to abate the problems of vacant properties, whether rodent infestations or hazardous conditions, can feel like a full-time job, she said.

Over the years that Ott wrote about vacant properties in her blog, Housing Policy Watch, she reckons she dug up information about 1,300 of them. She estimates fewer than 100 were placed into receivership, and about half of those were actually rehabilitated.

Recently, Nneka Nnamdi, founder of Fight Blight Bmore, came upon one of the signs in the city’s Upton neighborhood. She was concerned that the QR code was small, and she had to walk close to the building to scan it.

“You have to get too close to a building that has a vacant building notice, which essentially means it’s not safe,” Nnamdi said.

Anyone uncomfortable approaching the signs can seek the information online or call the listed phone number, Hawley said in a statement.

“The signs were kept to a minimum size by design so as not to clutter neighborhoods with large signage throughout,” she wrote.

A rental scooter rests beneath one of three "Vacant Property" homes on the 900 block of Bennett Place.
A rental scooter rests beneath one of three "Vacant Property" homes on the 900 block of Bennett Place. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

It would be more helpful if each QR code took users to a page about the property, rather than a search engine, Nnamdi said. But that would have required officials to create 15,000 unique QR codes, Hawley said.

“It just creates an additional step,” Nnamdi said. “So, this is one step toward what is needed, but it is not as robust as I would like to have seen.”

Beyond that, there are a slew of policy changes needed to address blight in Baltimore neighborhoods, Nnamdi said: The city should embrace redevelopment led by individual communities, all the while tackling smaller policy issues. For one thing, she said, the city ought to modify its Adopt-a-Lot program, which allows residents to care for city-owned vacant lots, and use them for community gardens or recreational areas, to allow a path to ownership.

“Basically, it’s extracting the labor from people and community to upkeep city-owned property for the city to do whatever they want with them whenever they will,” Nnamdi said.

In response, Hawley said in an email: “The Adopt-a-Lot program is currently a free program designed for interim use of city-owned vacant lots without the burden of taxes or other financial obligations. The City presently provides opportunities for ownership of city-owned property through land disposition agreements when plans for the area support the conveyance of such properties.”

The city could also adjust the policy surrounding who can purchase tax liens, Ott said, including to restrict those who have been convicted of bid-rigging in other municipal auctions.

A "Vacant Property" sign on an abandoned property has a QR code which can reveal information about the owners of the property.
A "Vacant Property" sign on an abandoned property has a QR code which can reveal information about the owners of the property. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In the meantime, it may be slightly easier for residents to get to know, and possibly put pressure on, problematic owners, activists say.

Ott took a similar tack back in 2013, when she helped a local artist identify abandoned properties where they could paint murals featuring a QR code with property information. One property owner sued Ott, but a judge dismissed the case.

Hawley said the new procedure isn’t so much about shaming, but about raising community awareness about the problems facing Baltimore.

“It’s not about shaming,” Hawley said. “It’s about pride in our city.”

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