Mayor slows razing in city Demolition to require approved strategy for use of vacant land; 'I'll be more cautious'; Housing department refuses to comment on Schmoke initiative


Troubled that the city's demolition drive too often turns scraggly vacant houses into scraggly vacant lots, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he won't approve demolitions unless plans are in place for the lots left behind when the bulldozers roll away.

The mayor didn't go so far as to order a moratorium on demolitions, but his comments suggested that the fast pace of the city's effort to raze 1,000 houses this year will be slowed.

"In too many instances, we have replaced the eyesore of a vacant house with the eyesore of a vacant lot," Schmoke said. "I'll be more cautious about authorizing demolitions in the future until we have a plan for the lot."

Schmoke delivered new details of his effort to reform the city's demolition campaign during his weekly press briefing. His actions come after a three-part Sun series spotlighted a seemingly haphazard demolition effort that has contributed to the blight of the city and helped drive homeowners and investors away.

For the mayor, the strategy is clear: Before a house is toppled, the city must know what it will do with the parcel left behind. The vacant lot could be used for a garden or housing, the mayor said, or be turned over to a community group, church or business.

The only exception, he said, is in emergencies where vacant houses present hazardous conditions and must be razed immediately.

Otherwise, the more cautious course would prevail.

"I hope that what we can do is go to the communities and show them some of the problems we've had in the past," Schmoke said. "And say to them, 'Look, we'd like to get rid of some of the older houses, but we don't want to leave you with a new trash dump. So work with us on developing alternative uses.' "

He added: "Clearly, we have to come up with alternative uses before we just go in and demolish."

The mayor's more careful approach comes at a time when Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is pressing to topple more than 1,000 houses this year. If he succeeds, Henson will have taken down more houses since taking office in 1993 than his predecessors did in the eight previous years.

Asked yesterday whether his strategy conflicts with Henson's fast-paced demolition schedule, Schmoke said, "No, I hope not." He said Henson is also "trying to invite more community participation in the process rather than us just responding to complaints to tear down houses."

Henson's spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday.

To some housing experts, Schmoke's idea is a good first step -- but the beginning of a long road to solving Baltimore's vacant and crumbling housing crisis.

The mayor's strategy "is definitely a step in the right direction," said Dr. Sandra Newman, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Institute of Policy Studies.

But, she added, the city's population loss -- down from a high of 950,000 at the end of World War II to 675,000 today -- requires "a long-term strategy for what's going to really help the city and the people who live here."

The city is dotted with 40,000 vacant or decaying properties, many of them blanketed with liens for boarding, repair or demolition work ordered by the city.

Those liens, which have interest rates of nearly 20 percent a year, often exceed the value of the property, prompting owners to walk away.

In Baltimore, at least 2,800 residential properties carry liens that equal or exceed their assessed value. Those liens total $52 million.

Such liens often prevent potential investors from rehabilitating the properties because they must be paid off before a new owner can take title. Sometimes, the city sues the previous owner for the money.

"Those are sticks," says Newman of the liens.

"How about carrots?" she asks, suggesting that the city should make greater strides in helping homeowners fix up their properties before they fall into such disrepair that the city steps in, does the work and bills the owner.

City officials are moving ahead with a process they hope will spur redevelopment of blighted lots. The city plans to hire a private collection agency to pursue previous owners for debts -- while allowing new investors to buy properties without paying another's old bills.

This "lien release" policy and Schmoke's demolition strategy represent fundamental shifts in how the city deals with the wreckage of blighted properties.

Yesterday, the mayor said his "strategic plan is going to be constantly updated. It's a work in progress."

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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