City Council members and mayoral candidates called Wednesday on Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to speed up the demolition of the city's crumbling abandoned houses after several collapsed in the high winds of the last week.
The city is spending $10 million a year to tear down vacant homes. But some officials said Rawlings-Blake should immediately divert more money to bring down about 500 that have bulging walls, severe stress cracks and missing rooftops before they fall down on their own.
At least five houses have collapsed since March 28. One in West Baltimore fell on a man as he sat in his car. He later died at an area hospital.
The city keeps a list of nearly 17,000 vacant buildings and considers about 500 at such risk of collapse that inspectors examine them every 10 days.
David L. Warnock, a businessman running for mayor, said allowing the decrepit houses to stand is willful neglect.
"We're paying people to inspect houses to watch them fall down? It doesn't make any sense at all," Warnock said. "This is an emergency situation. I think you start with emergencies first."
Rawlings-Blake said she is already spending four times as much money as previous mayors on demolition. She said her Vacants to Value program attacks the long-standing problem on multiple fronts: razing houses when they become safety hazards, targeting investors who will rehabilitate others and land-banking property not ripe for redevelopment.
She said she is trying to address generations of blight and abandonment.
"It is cause and effect," Rawlings-Blake said. "That is why there is the aggressive inspection process. Does it mean that we don't look for ways to enhance what we're able to do, to try to get a better handle on the homes that are on the edge or vulnerable to fall down? Absolutely not."
The Rawlings-Blake administration says the city has demolished more than 1,700 dilapidated buildings since 2010. Another 4,000 are to be torn down over the next four years using $94 million under a new state and city program.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the safety of people who live in and visit neighborhoods lined with vacant houses was a key factor in his decision to steer demolition money to Baltimore.
"Safety will continue to be a focus as the program grows and moves forward in the coming years," Shareese DeLeaver Churchill said in a statement. "The governor is and will always be committed to working with Baltimore City and its leadership to provide safer, healthier, and more attractive spaces for our citizens."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said some of the new state money needs to be used to bring down the 500 houses most at risk of collapse — regardless of whether they're in neighborhoods that officials think are most attractive to investors.
"The ones in imminent danger of falling on people need to come down first," Young said. "I want those houses to come down."
City Councilman Carl Stokes, who is running for mayor, said he considers the situation grave. He wants the city to appeal to the state and federal government for emergency funds.
"This is a situation where our citizens can — and have been — killed," Stokes said.
Councilman Nick J. Mosby, another candidate for mayor, said if city can spend $9 million on new trash cans, as the administration has just done, officials can find money to tear down dangerous houses.
A house costs between $14,000 and $20,000 to knock down; $9 million would cover the demolition of about 450 to 650 houses.
"We spent $9 million on trash cans," Mosby said. "Knowing a person just lost his life because of failed policies, we need to tell citizens we care more about lives than we care about the cost of tearing down these houses." Mosby said.
Lawyer Elizabeth Embry, a former assistant city solicitor and a candidate for mayor, said Baltimore is wasting money subsidizing blight — cash that she said should be redirected to tearing down the houses most at risk of collapse.
The properties that are inspected every 10 days are often magnets for crime and a drain on the budget for sanitation services, Embry said.
"It exemplifies some of the problems with the city, and lack of a strategic plan, lack of a sense of urgency," Embry said. "Spending money in a smart way will save us money in the long run."
Former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Bill Ferguson say the city should evaluate the next steps using a comprehensive plan that brings together several agencies.
Dixon, who is running to get her old job back, said she would work with the housing and fire departments to get an inventory of all vacant houses and decide which ones should be restored and which ones should be razed.
"Safety of city residents is myNo. 1 concern, and this calls for an urgentresponse before additional buildings collapse," Dixon said in a statement.
Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the death of Thomas Lemmon, 69, on March 28 gives the city an important reason to reconsider which houses are torn down first. He said the new state money headed to Baltimore provides a "phenomenal" opportunity to go after vacant houses.
"The mayor is right: This problem didn't happen overnight, and it can't be solved in a day," Ferguson said. "We have to keep up the momentum and understand blight is not just an aesthetic problem, it is a public health problem."
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the first step would be to ask neighborhood leaders what they want. Some houses, although vacant, are important to communities, she said.
The demolition of a historically significant rowhouse in Upton by a West Baltimore church late last year drew a public outcry. The building, known as the "Freedom House," was home to Baltimore's first African-American city councilman. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Clarence Mitchell Jr. all spent time there.
When people in a neighborhood think a vacant house at risk of collapse should be left standing, Clarke said, city officials should stabilize the property. But if neighbors say a house puts them in harm's way, she said, the city should tear it down.
Clarke is worried about the damage that collapsing buildings can do to adjoining rowhouses, which could be a family's sole possession.
"As a house next door begins to fall apart, the roof goes and now you have water in your house," she said. "If everyone says, 'Get them out of here,' get them out of there."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.