Open house at vacant home gives a glimpse at Baltimore's battle with blight

Christina Nutile is a foot soldier in Baltimore’s war on blight. And on Saturday her rampart was the front porch of a vacant and badly damaged house in Waverly.

Nutile works for the city’s housing department, marketing abandoned properties to would-be homeowners and developers. She was hosting an open house at 3404 Old York Road before it’s offered for sale through the city’s Vacants to Value program.

Open house might suggest eager real estate agents and young couples with mortgage pre-approvals in hand dreaming of a new home.

Touring a vacant house in Baltimore is a bit different.

From her post on the porch of the 144-year-old house, Nutile assured people it was safe to go inside. But she also asked them to sign a liability waiver and offered the use of a flashlight.

The house caught fire several months ago. Shelves inside still held some of the charred belongings of the last occupants. The fire damaged the downstairs ceilings and licked through the floorboard above. The stairs were covered in piles of ash. A bathroom was plunged so deep in gloom that the toilet wasn’t visible. A floppy disk lay discarded on the landing. One of the upstairs rooms was sealed off with caution tape.

But there was an upside to the wreckage.

The owner of the house, who bought it in 1990 for $52,000, has agreed to donate it to the city. Officials are asking prospective buyers to submit a plan for what they’d do with the property and $13,500 — a figure Nutile called “absolutely negotiable.”

“Vacants to Value gives people a chance to come and get a house for not much money,” Nutile said. “It kind of opens a door for folks.”

Few people came out in the rain Saturday to take a look. Just three, in fact.

One of them was investor Steven Handy. He said he owned properties in Philadelphia, but was thinking about acquring some in Baltimore. He’s thinking of the city’s proximity to Washington.

“I know that eventually this market’s going to redevelop,” Handy said. “Baltimore appears to have a lot of potential.”

So did the house, he said. It would probably need about $80,000 of work to rehabilitate, he estimated, and clarified: “That’s based on me getting some discounts from some friends.”

“But it’s a nice property,” Handy said. He shined a flashlight up toward a hole in the second-story floor.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has made tackling Baltimore’s 16,000 abandoned homes a priority, as have mayors before her.

Thousands of vacants in Baltimore have been rehabilated since 2010 when Vacants to Value launched. Thousands more have been demolished. Millions of dollars have been spent. But overall, the city has yet to win the battle, as new houses go vacant almost as quickly as others are fixed up or knocked down.

Still, Nutile said her work is exciting. The spring and the fall are the busiest times for marketing the city’s inventory. Last weekend she showed a pair of vacant rowhouses on Barclay Street in the Greenmount West neighborhood.

A couple dozen people came out, Nutile said, and one of the houses, number 1803, is just right for a family to buy and rehab themselves.

“That’s going to be a big deal for that block,” she said.

For whatever reason, the house in Waverly didn’t spark as much interest. After two hours on the porch Nutile got ready to leave.

A contractor went into the house, where the smell of smoke and damp lingered, and began boarding the windows back up.

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