Rawlings-Blake unveils plan for vacant housing

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would accelerate redevelopment of Baltimore's more than 30,000 vacant properties by cutting bureaucracy and speeding the sales of city-owned properties.

"Vacant houses are more than just an eyesore," Rawlings-Blake said at a Wednesday morning news conference. "Just ask someone who lives next door to one."

Vacant properties constitute one of the city's most pernicious problems, depressing home values and blighting the landscape. Officials have counted 16,000 unoccupied buildings, which harbor vagrants, attract vermin and pose fire hazards. The city owns 10,000 of the vacant properties, on 4,000 of which sit empty structures.

The city's spending board approved components of Rawlings-Blake's plan Wednesday, despite the objections of two members. City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young expressed concern about a provision that would allow officials to auction off city-owned properties —blighted and not — without setting a minimum bid.

Pratt and Young said the provision could allow officials to effectively give away valuable lots to the politically connected.

"If we have something of value, we need to receive fair value for it," Pratt said.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the goal is to move properties off the city rolls, not generate revenue.

The five-member Board of Estimates voted 3-2 to approve the auction procedure Wednesday. Rawlings-Blake and two of her Cabinet members voted in favor of the plan.

The board approved other elements of the plan. Liens mistakenly applied to city-owned properties could be dismissed by the finance department, eliminating an unwieldy process that required signatures from as many as five agencies.

The housing department will streamline the process of coding properties before sale. City-owned structures valued at less than $20,000 will no longer require a formal appraisal before they can be sold.

Former Housing Commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. called Rawlings-Blake's plan a positive step, but said the real problem was finding the money to demolish homes and creating demand for Baltimore real estate.

"The city's basic problem is it doesn't have have enough money and enough market demand to address all of the problems," said Embry, now president of the Abell Foundation. "They're relying on the private market to put up the money because they don't have it."

Baltimore has been struggling with blight at least as far back as the days of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who addressed the problem by offering homes for $1.

Rawlings-Blake's proposal represents a departure from some of the strategies advanced by her predecessors — the nonprofit, quasi-governmental land bank proposed by Sheila Dixon, and Martin O'Malley's Project 5000 initiative, which encouraged the housing department to acquire more vacant properties.

The land bank plan was yanked within weeks of Dixon's resignation in February.

The city purchased nearly 7,000 vacant properties under O'Malley but struggled to pass them on to buyers, even before the recession chilled the housing market. Graziano said that the city now avoids buying vacant properties unless they are part of major redevelopment initiatives.

Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said about 10,000 of the city's vacant houses should be torn down. It costs between $10,000 and $65,000 to raze a house, depending on its size and location, and the city does not have the funds to take down all of these houses, Braverman said.

This is not the first time the city has unveiled plans to increase code enforcement to vacant homes in neighborhoods that are attractive to buyers. In 2005, the housing department announced a nearly identical initiative called "Targeted Enforcement Toward Visible Outcomes."

Graziano called that plan "a nice notion," but said the city did not have the means to enforce the program at the time.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.



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