Neighbors welcome city plan to demolish abandoned, tumbledown houses


All Jean Yarborough has to do is walk around the corner to see one of the boarded-up, dilapidated homes that she wants torn down in her Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

Too many landlords in Park Heights have let the once-dignified rowhouses languish for years, she said. So she was quick to embrace Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's warning to absentee landlords last week to fix up their abandoned properties or see them torn down by the city.

"We are delighted. If a place looks like a ghetto, you have a ghetto mind," said Mrs. Yarborough, president of the Palmer Oakley Seven Avenues Spaulding community association. She already has a list of 20 properties she plans to submit to the city for possible razing.

The Schmoke administration is preparing to embark on an ambitious effort, never tried before on a citywide scale, to rid Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods of their growing inventory of vacant homes.

Baltimore has 400 blocks in which at least half of the homes stand empty. An additional 1,100 blocks have at least one permanently abandoned home. If the rate continues unchecked, the city estimates that the the number of vacant, blighted properties will reach 8,000 next year. Thousands more are substandard.

Community leaders and housing activists generally welcomed the effort, saying the problem is so critical that it makes sense to demolish unsalvageable properties. Many of the tiny frame houses clustered along the narrow alleys south of North Avenue are obsolete, they say.

"We're at a point now where we've all come to the conclusion that we have to deal with this thing directly. We need to do something more dramatically," said Vincent Quayle, director of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. "I'm delighted with what the city is doing. There are too many irresponsible property owners, and they just seem to ride along smoothly."

However, some historic preservationists and neighborhood activists said they believe all efforts at renovation should be exhausted first. They urged city officials to work closely with communities to pick the buildings that are too deteriorated to repair.

"I'm certainly glad the mayor has taken a very tough stand," said Carolyn Boitnott, a community activist in Butchers Hill. "My only concern is when decisions are made to raze properties that community organizations be consulted."

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is asking community associations to give him lists of long-abandoned, unsafe homes that they want torn down. He plans to start by giving those landlords 30 days to repair or demolish their properties. Only if they fail to respond will the city send out its own wrecking crews.

The first demolition probably will involve entire blocks of empty, crumbling rowhouses, Mr. Henson said Friday. The city already has torn down 28 of the alley rowhouses in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore and 21 off Dallas Street in East Baltimore.

"Clearly, we're not talking about properties with historic significance or where people are living," Mr. Henson said.

Renovation efforts have not kept pace with the number of landlords who cannot make ends meet renting out their homes and the city's steady loss of population from 940,000 in the 1960s to 740,000 today. Given the shrinking population, Mr. Henson estimates that Baltimore has about 16,000 homes too many.

Even though they're not boarded-up, houses often stand vacant after they're passed on to the next generation and can't to be sold in the depressed market. The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies has put the number of vacant and substandard units closer to 27,000. But Mr. Henson says he believes the number creating a neighborhood nuisance is now about 7,800.

Mr. Schmoke said his first priority is to force landlords to repair their properties. The financial burden for any demolition should also be the landlords' responsibility, he said, although the city could pay for it with federal grants or bonds.

"We would do this only in conjunction with neighborhood leaders who agree with us that a lot to be used for a garden or a tot lot would be better than a vacant house rotting in their neighborhood," Mr. Schmoke said Friday through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman. "We're not going to create new eyesores for a neighborhood to deal with."

Baltimore halted all of its wide-scale demolition in the early 1970s, after hundreds of families had been displaced by highway construction and urban renewal. Housing officials at the time found the "slum clearance" had resulted in changing too many neighborhoods and depleting low-income housing.

The initiative will be limited and will be done only with the neighborhood's approval so that the mistakes of other cities can be avoided. Those cities tore down huge stretches of homes in the 1960s and 1970s, only to be left with isolated, littered lots, said Charles C. Graves III, the city planning director.

"Selective demolition, particularly for the homes in the alley blocks, is great," he said. "It provides relief, open space and recreational areas for children to play."

But some property owners were quick to point out that demolition alone will not solve the city's housing problems. Doug Koenigsberg, who used to own 25 buildings in West Baltimore, said he tried to renovate them and rent them at an affordable price but ended up on the verge of bankruptcy. Six of his properties are now vacant.

Tenants often cannot afford even a monthly rent of $200 to $300, he said. Many of his renters had drug problems and wrecked their apartments before moving out. When they left, thieves would steal the new water heaters, leaving him with thousands of dollars in bills.

One question raised by community leaders and housing advocates was whether the city intends to demolish one or two rowhouses in a block, creating a gap-toothed effect. Mr. Henson said the city plans to consider those homes only after tackling larger blocks.

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