Baltimore residents in largely vacant blocks to be uprooted

With plans to demolish 1,500 vacant houses in the next three years, Baltimore officials and the few remaining residents in largely vacant blocks are beginning the early stages of the most delicate of relationships.

About 80 residents — each of them representing the last one or two households living in blocks that are otherwise entirely vacant — are to be uprooted this year, the city to take their homes by eminent domain, demolish the structures and establish community gardens.

They bring 80 different opinions that the city must respond to.

Norma Green, who lives in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton, where the city plans to tear down at least several blocks of vacant homes, spoke at a community meeting Tuesday evening in Druid Heights.

"There's always been a great push to bring people back to the city, but the people who live here are always overlooked," she said. "How are you going to give someone fair market value for a house surrounded by vacants?"

Some residents are suspicious of the process that will take their homes. Others can't wait to rid their neighborhood of blight, perhaps Baltimore's most visible problem.

Peter Brooks, who rents out a home he owns in the 500 block of Laurens Street, said homeowners were surprised recently by letters from the city informing them of the plans. He thinks city officials should have met residents one-on-one first before holding what he described as tense community meetings.

"On the surface it's a good idea," he said. "The reason it makes people feel antagonistic is that it's like, it's not the neighborhoods that are an eyesore, it's us."

Brooks' house has been in his family for 115 years, he said, and is within walking distance of a train station. Brooks says he might apply for a historic designation for the house, which would spare it from demolition.

The city has identified 16,000 vacant houses. The U.S. Census Bureau pegs the number higher, at 23,000.

The city says they are magnets for crime and fire, and destroy the values of neighboring properties. Since much of the city's housing consists of row homes, demolition can be complicated.

"It would be a disservice to be leaving folks in these blocks," said Julie Day, the city's deputy housing commissioner for land resources. "We don't take this lightly. We understand that it has tremendous impacts on people's lives."

City housing officials must comply with eminent domain laws, which say that if a displaced person moves to a comparable but more expensive home, the city must pay the difference.

In November, the city announced an expansion of the two-year-old Vacants to Value program, with 1,500 houses to be sold and rehabbed and another 1,500 demolished. At that point, officials said 245 houses had been demolished and 450 sold and renovated through the program.

The houses the city wants to demolish, officials say, are unlikely to ever draw investor interest. This year, about 500 houses are to be demolished, with 80 residents displaced. Another 1,000 demolitions are planned for 2014 and 2015.

James Crockett, a real estate broker who says he's struggled to convince people to move to the city, recalled former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's program in which vacant houses were sold for $1. That could work again he said, but the city needs to fix the schools, lower taxes and fight crime before it will reverse a decades-long decline in population.

"You don't have a housing problem in Baltimore, you have a population problem," Crockett said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this report.

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