With some expert advice from Pless Jones of P&J Contracting, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan manned a 21-ton hydraulic excavator Thursday and smashed a gaping hole in the side of a dilapidated, vacant rowhome in East Baltimore.
“I was taking out some of my frustrations,” the Republican governor said later. “You know, it’s a lot more fun than what I normally do every day.”
Besides the therapeutic value of seeing bricks come tumbling down, the demolition photo opportunity served to promote a city-state partnership, Project CORE, that aims to put a dent in the city’s stubborn problem of vacant homes.
Hogan, state officials and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young celebrated the house on the corner of North Bradford and East Lanvale streets in Broadway East as the 4,000th unit to be demolished, deconstructed or “stabilized” through the program established in 2016.
“We are here to celebrate a very important milestone: After about 3½ years, we are, today, going to demolish our 4,000th unit of blight in Baltimore,” Ken Holt, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said to cheers.
But the number of vacants eliminated in Baltimore through the program is actually no more than 2,800 units.
The state is counting an additional approximately 1,200 units that are “in process” — still being bid out to contractors — to reach the total of 4,000, according to data provided by the state housing department.
And about 100 of those 1,200 units “in process” aren’t residential units; they are commercial buildings that are being demolished. The state estimates how many residential units could fit in those buildings and assigns that number to the total, according to the state housing agency.
Despite the work, the problem of vacant housing continues. The city currently has 16,795 vacant homes — a number that has not significantly changed despite efforts to address the problem over the past decade, including Project CORE.
Hogan said he was inspired to work on the problem after campaigning in Baltimore and hearing frustration from city residents.
“They weren’t just unsightly, but unhealthy, unsafe and, in some cases, a hotbed of criminal activity,” Hogan said to a crowd that included many people holding yellow signs that read: “Thank you! Project CORE.”
Young said Project CORE is “a partnership worth having.” He cheered the effort that’s been made.
“Too often, the challenges get all of the attention. Too often, the challenges get all of the attention. Too often, the challenges get all of the attention,” the Democratic mayor repeated to the crowd’s delight. “But today is a celebration of our good work and progress. Today is a celebration of our good work and progress.”
Through Project CORE — the acronym is for “Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise” — the state is sending millions of extra dollars to Baltimore to help demolish vacants.
When the program began, Hogan pledged the state would contribute $75 million over four years, with a 25% match from the city. That’s in addition to funding from existing state revitalization programs and private investments in Baltimore neighborhoods.
The Baltimore Sun reported last year that the number of vacant homes in the city remained stubbornly high. In 2010, there were 16,800 vacant homes. After 2,700 were demolished and 4,200 were rehabilitated between 2010 and 2018 through a variety of programs, the city was left with 16,500 vacant homes — a consequence of people dying, moving out of the city and otherwise abandoning homes. That created newly vacant homes, even as existing vacants were eliminated.
Some neighborhood residents attending Thursday’s event said they’d like to see quicker action. Ruby Coleman said Project CORE is a “great success” for East Baltimore, generating excitement when neighbors see old buildings torn down.
“I want it to move faster, but I know that’s not realistic because it’s so much,” she said. “I’m praying and hoping that it moves timely. I may not be there to see it, but my granddaughter, my great-granddaughter may see a different Baltimore.”
Mya Queensbury, a Morgan State University student, recognized the challenge in tackling a problem that’s been intractable for so long.
“I think it’s impossible for the project to move faster, just for the fact that it’s going to take a lot of time and money just to destroy these buildings, build these buildings and get people in them,” she said. “I think Baltimore, in general, has a bad reputation, and I think as we improve the city, make it look better, we’ll get a better reputation and get people down here.”
Shirley Brown, a lifelong East Baltimore resident, said eliminating blighted buildings helps keep crime down, because criminals have nowhere to hide.
She said any new housing needs to be affordable.
“My fear is gentrification, because the people want to come back,” she said.