Schmoke warns landlords: Fix it, or city will raze it


In an ambitious effort to rid Baltimore of thousands of boarded-up homes, the Schmoke administration is preparing to give absentee landlords an ultimatum: Either fix the dilapidated properties or the city will tear them down.

The focus of the initiative, never tried before on a citywide scale in Baltimore, is the growing inventory of vacant, deteriorating homes throughout the city's poorest neighborhoods. The number of vacant homes has increased from 5,500 to 7,700 in the past six years and is expected to reach 8,000 next year if the rate of abandonment continues unchecked.

"It really upsets me the way in which absentee landlords are treating our neighborhoods," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "We're just sick and tired of these absentee landlords allowing these vacants to sit for so long that they deteriorate beyond the financial ability of somebody to renovate them. If we have vacant houses that are sitting as nuisances in the neighborhood . . . I want to tear them down."

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is developing a three-point campaign to restore or raze the once-dignified brick rowhomes that are crumbling in Harlem Park, Sandtown, Oliver, Pen-Lucy and elsewhere in East and West Baltimore.

Mr. Henson said yesterday that he plans to stiffen fines and step up prosecution of absentee landlords who allow their properties to languish for years.

At the same time, he is asking community groups to draw up lists of blighted, long-empty properties that should be demolished. And the city will create a redevelopment plan for the vacant lots, whether it be new homes or simply a small garden.

"What I'm hearing from the communities is, if they're given two short-term options -- a vacant house or a vacant lot -- they'll take the latter every day," Mr. Henson said. "When I lay out the criteria and ask them to work with us on a selective demolition plan, they're saying, 'It's like you're throwing us a lifeline.' "

The plan, still in the works, represents a new direction for Baltimore. In the past, housing officials scrambled to renovate as many vacant homes as possible.

But in the last year, Mayor Schmoke and Mr. Henson decided that the empty, unsafe houses clustered along the narrow alleys of Sandtown-Winchester should be demolished rather than renovated. Houses stood empty on nearly every one of the 72 city blocks when the city began its much-heralded revitalization of the West Baltimore neighborhood.

In the spring of 1993, the mayor capped a day of celebration in Sandtown-Winchester by pledging to renovate or tear down all 600 vacant homes within a year. Mr. Schmoke acknowledged yesterday that he's a bit behind on his goal but said the effort is well under way.

It took longer to acquire many of the vacant homes because landlords waited to drive up the price after the mayor announced his plans, Mr. Schmoke said. But the city now owns most of them and has sent wrecking crews to demolish some of the dilapidated alley homes.

Except to build expressways and for urban renewal projects, demolition seldom has been tried on a large scale in Baltimore. In one of the few instances, the city tore down dilapidated housing near Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1930s in an attempt to eradicate tuberculosis.

In a demonstration project partially financed by the Ford Foundation, the city rebuilt a deteriorated 27-block area in East Baltimore in 1952. But more than four decades later, the community off Gay Street is again struggling for survival.

One of the biggest demolition programs for a road project occurred during the 1960s and 1970s in the Franklin Street corridor in West Baltimore. Hundreds of families were displaced when their homes were condemned for an expressway project that was never completed.

Renovation efforts have not kept pace with the number of people abandoning homes and the city's steady loss of population from 940,000 in the 1960s to 740,000 today, Mr. Henson said.

But the first goal still is to get landlords to fix up their properties, the mayor said. It is unclear how many homes eventually will be razed. Only if property owners fail to respond to notices and fines will the city post a "renovate or raze" warning and then proceed with demolition.

"We want to put the burden on the private property owner to fix it up," Mr. Schmoke said. "Right now,it makes sense to let a lot of vacant properties sit. We've got to change the economics of this. We want to bill and fine them big-time."

Mr. Schmoke's plan was met with enthusiasm by many community activists who are fed up with the growing number of rotting homes, which often become hide-outs for drug dealers.

"The community is very excited about tearing down buildings and coming up with more open space," said Tony Presley, community resource coordinator with Druid Heights Community Development Corp.

Many city leaders were equally supportive. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke warned that the "city should not hodgepodge go in and demolish a block unless it is part of an urban renewal plan." But she said if the community comes up with a redevelopment plan, "it makes a lot of sense in a lot of cases."

"This gives us an opportunity to rebuild some neighborhoods," said 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes. "It's obvious we've lost upwards of a quarter of a million people, and we have more housing stock than people. This gives us a chance to open up space."

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who also represents the city's 2nd District on the east side, said he has long advocated razing abandoned homes. "Any opportunity we have to tear them down, we should tear them down."

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