Can Schmoke Stop the Blight?


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal to battle vacant and run-down rental housing by opening up confidential landlord registration files is a good start. But it is not enough. Boarded-up houses are increasing in Baltimore City at such an alarming rate that a much more comprehensive strategy is required to prevent whole neighborhoods from becoming urban wastelands.

Above all, a new sense of urgency is needed at City Hall -- from the mayor's office and city council to the various bureaucracies. The blight must be stopped. City residents, from tenants to homeowners, have to be given new hope.

Baltimore City is at a crossroads. The seemingly unending recession has fundamentally eroded the economic assumptions of rental speculation. Big packages of marginal inner-city properties, often with lead paint violations and other serious flaws, are being auctioned off every week. The conclusion: landlords are scrambling to get out from under their inner-city properties.

Meanwhile, those landlords still in the low-end rental business, are trying to squeeze a profit by making even fewer repairs than before. The Sun's recent articles about R. William Connolly Jr., owner of 517 marginal properties, underscore this sad point.

From the day he took office some five years ago, Mayor Schmoke has talked about improving housing in Baltimore. But while his administration has launched some remarkable initiatives, such as West Baltimore's $23 million Nehemiah project to provide 300 town houses for sale to low-income homeowners, inner-city housing stock has been allowed to deteriorate badly in recent years.

Many of the reasons are socio-economic. But the situation is also due to a general lack of urgency in the bureaucracies. The housing court is ripe for an overhaul. So is the Department of Housing and Community Development. Too often they tolerate inaction that lets resolvable situations get out of control, demoralizing whole communities.

Instead of getting rid of blocks and blocks of city-owned vacant houses, the housing department still stockpiles them. Rather than offering such houses for small contractors or would-be homeowners to rehabilitate, housing bureaucrats prefer to deal with larger companies and big packages of structures. If big deals do not materialize, the department often shows little interest in accommodating entrepreneurs interested in the redevelopment of vacant residential or commercial spaces.

This mind set has to change. We urge Mr. Schmoke to initiate a wholesale review of Baltimore housing. The performance and priorities of the housing department should be scrutinized. So should the work of the housing court. Housing is a vital part of the job of making this city work again.

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