A new law will allow Baltimore to take control of empty houses earlier in the decay process and before the signs of neglect can drag down the entire neighborhood. (Baltimore Sun video)
Past the manicured lawns and tidy red brick rowhomes along Stonewood Road in Baltimore's New Northwood neighborhood sits one house that shows the ravages of years of neglect.
A faded and weathered garland from two, perhaps three, Christmases gone by coils around the front railing, and a strip of gutter ripped from the decorative cornice along the roof's edge lies precariously atop the covered porch.
Councilman Bill Henry says neighbors call City Hall regularly to complain and to plead with officials to force the owner to fix the place up. But so far, the city's efforts have been fruitless. Notices hang from the front doorknob; more sit unattended behind the screen door. (Attempts by The Baltimore Sun to reach the owner of the house also were unsuccessful.)
But Henry thinks the city has found a solution.
A law set to take effect next month will allow Baltimore officials to take over an abandoned home earlier than currently allowed, when an empty property begins to show signs of neglect but before it has a chance to fall into the level of disrepair that risks dragging down the entire neighborhood.
The law, sponsored by Henry, approved by the City Council and signed last week by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is the city's latest tool against the 16,000 vacant properties that blight the landscape — leftovers from an era when the population was nearly twice as large, and magnets for the crime that for many defines Baltimore. Many believe that the city cannot move ahead until it solves the problem; Rawlings-Blake has made it a policy priority.
Advocates for property rights warn that such laws could be abused by officials eager to gentrify neighborhoods.
To Henry, the law gives communities a fighting chance.
"It is a war against blight," he said. "You really have to fight blight like it is an enemy force. You have to put up defenses. You have to make sure you can flank it. You have to make sure you don't get outflanked by it."
Under current law, the city won't force the sale of an abandoned house unless the windows and doors are broken or left open, allowing people and pests to come and go freely, or unless other damage is so severe that the property is unsafe.
The new law expands the circumstances in which the city may begin that process. For most of the houses in question, the clock will start when the city's 311 hotline fields the first complaint of neglect — a dilapidated front porch, for example, or trash piling up among tall weeds.
Housing inspectors have generally responded to such complaints by writing up notices and issuing fines. But officials say that often didn't solve the problem.
Under the new law, when the owner of a problem property ignores repeated notices to keep up a home, the city can petition a district court to force a sale.
Officials expect only a couple of hundred unoccupied houses to fall into this new category. In most cases, they say, the home will have been abandoned because the owner died. But they say the impact will be felt widely, because the effect abandoned properties can have on communities is far-reaching.
On a recent day, crews from the Department of Public Works, armed with a list of vacant properties, made stops in East and West Baltimore to board up houses. All of them met current city definitions.
City employees David Johnson Jr. and Clyde Crawford tugged on the front door of a house in the 1200 block of James St. in Pigtown to check if it was locked. Then they went around back and were able to walk inside. They found glass shattered all over the kitchen floor and trash, clothing and a For Sale sign strewn about.
Upstairs, a woman slept on a thin mattress on the floor with a gray-and-white kitten snuggling beside her. In the next room, a man awoke, scurried down the steps and out the back door. Scattered on the floor were syringes and needles, pills and empty packs of cigarettes.
Johnson asked the woman to grab her belongings and leave the property.
"We greatly appreciate your cooperation," he said.
The woman rolled up a brown sleeping bag, grabbed a Betty Boop purse and stuffed some clothes in a Price Rite shopping bag.
The woman swore and asked, "Do you know what time it is?"
Later she said, "The dude said this was his brother's house."
The woman listed on property records as the owner told The Sun that the bank had taken the house. She said she didn't know the name of the bank and declined to comment further.
At the next stop, Johnson and Crawford cut pieces of plywood to fit over the windows and doors of a vacant house in the 300 block of Fulton Ave. in the Franklin Square neighborhood.
The owners couldn't be reached for comment. A neighbor said a fire forced a family to abandon the house more than a year ago. Now, neighbor Roger Simpkins said, he worries about squatters "getting high and burning it up."
Rawlings-Blake said the new law will help the city respond more effectively to community complaints and will keep neighborhoods stronger.
"It is a real-life problem for communities across our city to deal with having a blighted and unoccupied property, and because of a technicality we were not able to do anything about it," she said. "If it doesn't make sense, you have to figure out a better way to do it."
Rawlings-Blake said the approach is one of several the city uses to address vacant houses. The city plans to spend about $13 million to stabilize or knock down such properties.
The city spends about $1 million annually to board up vacant houses. Officials plan to tear down about 600 between now and early next year.
Officials say they don't know how much enforcement of the new law will cost. The houses in the new category won't have to be boarded up, at least initially, the way typical vacants are, because they don't have unsecured access; otherwise, they'd already be considered vacant.
Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value program identifies entire blocks slated for demolition and facilitates large-scale redevelopment in distressed communities. The administration says the initiative, unveiled in November 2010, has spurred the demolition or rehabilitation of 3,000 vacant houses and brought more than $107 million in private investment.
For some, images of entire city blocks lined with boarded-up houses have come to define Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake said she's not concerned that the new law will add to the number of vacant houses on the books. She said it will help the city respond when a resident comes to officials and says, "The house next door is vacant, no one lives there, the paint is coming off the shutters, no one is collecting the mail."
"There was very little for us to do," she said.
Local landlords are studying the law.
"We certainly feel that it's going to have an impact on our members, and investors in general, but we will have to review it in more detail to see exactly what the impact will be," said Alan Chantker, president of the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Investors Association.
Tommy Tompsett, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said after a cursory review of the new law that it appeared unlikely to have much effect on landlords. He said the violations that would trigger the city to force a sale would also likely make a home uninhabitable, and unlikely to be rentable in the first place.
But Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., warned that the law could allow officials to make an "end run around eminent domain laws." Such laws set limits on the government's ability to acquire private property.
He advised officials to tread carefully.
"There is a huge potential for abuse, especially when there are developers who want to get their hands on the property and the city can resort to this instead of using eminent domain," Rowes said.
The Constitution is clear in allowing governments to take properties that pose health and safety risks, Rowes said, but characterizing houses as nuisance properties is a gray area.
Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., said potential issues with Baltimore's nuisance property law will come down to the way the City Council wrote the legislation and how officials enforce it.
"The City Council has an obligation to the community but also to the property owners, who have constitutional rights that need to be protected," Wood said.
Henry, who introduced the legislation, said the city won't use the law against property owners who keep their houses in good shape.
"This law is about protecting neighborhoods from irresponsible, absentee owners," Henry said. "If you're a responsible property owner, you will have absolutely no problem with this law. You just need one really bad house in the middle of a block, and you've just impacted the property values of 30 or 40 houses around it."
Henry said the effect of abandoned properties on homes values citywide likely reaches millions of dollars.
Henry spoke of a neighbor who died a few years ago. He said he watched her home in the Radnor-Winston neighborhood of North Baltimore fall into disrepair. The property was put up for auction at an estate sale, but the high bid fell a few thousand dollars short of the $55,000 reverse mortgage she had on the property.
While the house sat empty, Henry said, a shutter smashed a third-story window during a storm, letting in the elements and animals, which caused further damage, Henry said. By the time the bank finally sold the house, he said, its value had fallen to $25,000.
The house never met the city's definition of vacant, Henry said, despite being abandoned for years.
"That's what got me, where I said, 'Maybe we have to change the way we address this,'" Henry said. "It's become more of a problem for more people."
Once an unoccupied house is declared to be vacant or a nuisance property, Assistant Housing Commissioner Jason Hessler said, the city can petition the court to intervene through a process called receivership. That allows a third party to auction the property to a buyer who will redevelop it.
The average sale price for an auctioned house is about $20,000, although some sell for as little as $5,000. The money goes first to cover outstanding taxes and fees. Any remaining cash is given to mortgage companies and the original owner.
If the property doesn't sell, the city can consider alternatives, including demolition.
Hessler said the city might issue violations for unoccupied houses based on exterior problems, such as a porch falling apart, gutters or downspouts missing, or shutters falling off. But until now, it hasn't had the option of taking the owners to court under the receivership process.
"When owners walk away from the house, and it's starting to rot, you can see it from these more minor violations from the outside," Hessler said. "That is an indicator to us that there are additional problems."
He said the new law "allows us to get to these properties before they rot all the way through."
City officials think Ashburton in Northwest Baltimore is one neighborhood that stands to benefit from the new law: It's a stable community with few vacants, but it occasionally sees a house abandoned by an owner who suffers financial challenges or health issues or dies.
Beatrice Scott, president of the Ashburton Area Association, called the new law "a very important move."
"We wholeheartedly appreciate that," she said. "Ashburton doesn't sit still for a lot of neglect."
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Officials said Lake Evesham, Original Northwood and Belair-Edison are other examples of neighborhoods that could benefit from the new law.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he's eager to see the city shed the vacant houses.
"We should go further and put some restrictions on how long a house can be vacant before we start just giving them away to developers and nonprofits," Young said. "It's sickening that they have been sitting for 10, some 15 years, and there should be some kind of cutoff.
"We have blocks of them. Let's give them to developers — just give them to them."