If vacant houses and "For Sale" signs are barometers of a city's underlying stability and health, then many Baltimore neighborhoods are in alarming shape. The next mayor will likely preside over a demolition of whole city blocks -- unless the trend can be reversed.
The causes of this situation are both simple and complex. In the past four decades, Baltimore's population has plummeted by 250,000 to an estimated 700,000. Many middle-class families have moved to the surrounding counties in search of more space, less crime and better schools. Meanwhile, the strong influx of Southern blacks and Appalachian whites, which kept Baltimore growing during and after World War II, has stopped. As foreign immigrants increasingly make their first move to the suburbs, the number of vacant houses in the city has grown to 30,000 or more.
Two factors make this situation serious.
One is an estimate by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that a neighborhood loses its long-term viability when three to six percent of its houses are abandoned. Many Baltimore neighborhoods fit that category.
The other factor is Baltimore's pervasive poverty and the social pathology it often produces: One in every seven residents is on public assistance. Welfare is such a major economic force that Baltimoreans receive more than $318 million a year in cash and food stamp assistance every year.
Baltimore City needs to develop a housing strategy. Such a strategy has to answer these questions: Have traditional, narrow rowhouses -- particularly in alleys -- outlived their usefulness? Is total rehabilitation of marginal old structures, while often desirable for aesthetic reasons, sufficiently cost-effective? Can the city be made more appealing through the construction of less dense neighborhoods with all the amenities of the suburbs?
The housing strategy also ought to initiate discussion on rezoning land that becomes vacant if houses are demolished. Should the land be reserved for future housing or directed to produce badly needed jobs as industrial and office parks?
Politicians hate even the thought of talking about pulling down old neighborhoods. Yet it is time for Baltimore's next mayor to take a realistic look at the city and its prospects.
If the city resorts to large-scale demolition, razing should not be done in a helter-skelter fashion. The success of many designated historic neighborhoods shows that seemingly hopeless areas can be reborn and returned to viability. The key to maintaining Baltimore's aging housing stock and neighborhoods in good shape is strict enforcement of building and sanitation codes.