Boarded-up and falling down, hundreds of Baltimore's vacant and blighted rowhouses are scheduled for demolition in coming months in a stepped-up effort to rid the city of its most visible sign of decades of urban decay.
Over the next 2 1/2 years, the city is budgeted to spend nearly $22 million to tear down 1,500 abandoned houses — a move urban planners say could transform Baltimore visually and clear a path for struggling neighborhoods to attract future development. Previously, the city had been spending about $2.5 million a year on demolition.
The houses in communities like Johnston Square will be replaced with gardens, urban farms and green space, with the intention that someday new homes and businesses will take their place.
Ralph Moore, 61, a longtime community activist in the East Baltimore neighborhood, recently walked past a shell that once housed a family with children who poured out the front door and into the nearby St. Frances Academy. The empty house is standing amid a half-demolished strip of the city's trademark rowhouses.
Moore and others are glad, for now, to see the vacant houses come down. But they also say they're expecting to hear in time about plans for redevelopment.
"I think you can't talk about demolition without answering the question, 'What's going to come in its place and who's going to benefit?' " Moore said. "We just don't want a lot of tracts of vacant land like Detroit."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she understands the concern. "When change comes and when there isn't an immediate market demand, it leaves a lot of unease because the future isn't certain," she said. But the goal, she stressed, is "renewal and strengthening our neighborhoods. … We're not putting the properties on the back burner."
The demolition schedule is part of the mayor's Vacants to Value program, which she calls a data- and market-driven approach to ridding Baltimore of a sizable portion of its 16,000 vacant, blighted houses over the next 10 years. The goal is to systematically assess vacant houses, restore those that are viable, and demolish whole swaths of those that are not, in the process creating sites for eventual redevelopment.
Rawlings-Blake budgeted $12.4 million this year for demolition and will use another $9.25 million from settlement money the city is getting as part of a national lawsuit against mortgage servicers.
The money will significantly accelerate demolitions. The city, which owns about 20 percent of Baltimore's vacant houses, has been tearing down about 260 a year since 2005.
Harley Etienne, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, said Baltimore is among many post-industrial cities in America struggling with the perennial issue of vacant houses and urban blight.
Youngstown, Ohio, is a place that city leaders can look to for guidance, Etienne said. Youngstown, like Baltimore, suffered decades of severe population loss. Rather than rapidly demolish houses, like Detroit, leaving scarred land in its wake, Youngstown leaders chose to shrink the footprint of the city by encouraging residents to move out of blighted neighborhoods and discontinuing city services to those areas.
But Baltimore has advantages that other cities don't, including the port, the proximity to Washington and the Interstate 95 corridor, Etienne said. So it may have more options for redevelopment. The demolition program has the possibility to redefine the city, he said. "It can be transformative, but it depends on how it's applied," Etienne said. "There is no magic wand. It takes a very long time."
Under Vacants to Value, the city first evaluates whether a house can be sold to a private developer and rehabilitated, according to Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.
Whether a rehab is feasible depends on where the house is located, Graziano said. The city is focused on finding investors to overhaul homes in 19 community development clusters identified around Baltimore.
In areas where the vacant homes are isolated, the city targets the property owners to compel them to rehab the houses through code enforcement and fines. The city also takes some property owners to court to force the structures to be sold at auction.
About 5,000 vacant houses are isolated among otherwise occupied blocks in 85 neighborhoods.
The majority of the vacants, about 10,000, are grouped together in desolate neighborhoods, he said. It is from this group that the city plans to demolish 1,500 houses in the next 21/2 years. To decide which ones to tackle first, officials consider factors that include community wishes and potential development.
Before the city can raze a block, officials must relocate any families left living among the empty houses, a process that typically takes a year. Finding new places for renters costs an average of $85,000, compared to relocating homeowners, which runs about $170,000.
"It's very sensitive work, and we have professional relocation specialists who work one-on-one to help people find what fits the needs of their family best," said Julie Day, deputy housing commissioner for land resources. "We love when they stay in the city, but they can go wherever they want. They can go to Alaska if they want."
The city spends an average of $13,000 to demolish a vacant house.
For owner-occupied homes in blocks that are mostly vacant and targeted for demolition, Graziano said the city pays property owners fair-market value for the house and buys them a comparable house anywhere of their choosing. If the homeowner had a mortgage on the original property, a mortgage of the same amount will be transferred to the new house.
Dislocated renters get housing vouchers and work with counselors to find new accommodations. If the family can't find a place to lease for the same amount, the city will pay the difference in rent for 60 months.
About 80 individuals will be relocated this year.
Archana Sharma, an assistant professor in Morgan State University's School of Architecture and Planning, said any successful urban renewal project must address the fact that blighted neighborhoods aren't only a result of vacant homes, but a host of social, cultural, economic and education conditions.
Sharma said to get it right, the city should find a way to empower the communities by providing outlets for youths, more jobs and ways for residents to participate in the recovery. City planners should incorporate tree plantings and avenues for biking and walking, the installation of solar roofs on vacant housing and skate parks open to graffiti artists inside urban farms, she said.
"Remember, we do not have to be another Detroit; we just have to be a rejuvenated Baltimore," Sharma said.
Once the houses are torn down, Graziano said the city will convert the land into green space, some open with trees, others with playgrounds for children while individuals can convert lots into urban farms.
The land will remain under city ownership and undeveloped until an investor proposes a plan for a new use, Graziano said.
"We know the areas that have significant amounts of vacant and abandoned housing and blight suffer from tremendous social ills and the people who live there are subject to higher crime rates, children having to walk past vacant and blighted properties to get to school," Graziano said. "What we're trying to do is always enhance the quality of life in a community."