'Sun' reporters got the wrong end of the telescope No city has done more to get rid of substandard properties


THE DETERIORATION of Baltimore's housing stock is a phenomenon of over 30 years. In the last several years, we have tried to change policies -- sometimes promulgated decades ago -- to bring our corrective actions up to date. It is not an easy process, nor is it simplistic in either its causes or solutions.

We have a less-than-perfect system. But we are demolishing, revitalizing and building anew at an unprecedented rate. We are in the midst of absolutely dramatic changes in the way business has been done for decades: neighborhood service centers, for example, that bring together multiple city agencies for a single, coordinated approach to any given problem, and our proposed computerized one-stop shop for expedited permit processing.

I could cite other well-publicized changes, such as our growing array of tax-credit programs, our enormous strides in changing entire communities (and the city's skyline) through public-housing demolition and rebuilding, our diverse public-private Substandard Housing Task Force and -- yes-- our selective demolition program.

Many other sweeping new programs of the last few years give city residents better service, better government access and better home-ownership opportunities. The city has led the region for several years in home sales. I strongly anticipate that 1997 will show the trend continuing.

I would have hoped that the Sun articles of April 6, 7 and 8 would mentioned any of the above items in the first 20 paragraphs. Predictably, they did not.

Uniquely complex issue

During my tenure as housing commissioner, I have consistently described the problem of substandard and obsolete housing in Baltimore as one of the most uniquely perplexing and complex issues the city faces, and I have disputed the "official" number of vacant properties in the city. While I have been the city's biggest critic on this issue, I have also implemented many new efforts to address this systemic problem.

The establishment of neighborhood service centers to address day-to-day "grime and quality of life" issues in communities; the ongoing work (including legislative proposals) of the Substandard and Obsolete Housing Task Force (established last year) to recommend far-reaching solutions and the clarity I have tried to bring to the land-use planning process in our most distressed communities was overlooked in your articles.

In an op-ed piece in your paper, I argued that there is no silver bullet for this problem. Demolition must work hand-in-glove with aggressive and enlightened code enforcement; rehabilitation and stabilization of historic (we are a city proud of its architectural heritage) and noteworthy properties must be offset with new construction of modern housing products to maintain our tax base. And all this must work at the same time.

The task force, for example, has proposed a broad range of remedies, some of which require city or state legislation. Probably the most significant is a state bill, just passed, that would make it easier to place personal judgments (in lieu of, or in addition to, property liens) on property owners who fail to make TTC repairs. We were also able to get dedicated double the court time to housing and sanitation issues, and we plan to fully take advantage of the expanded docket by May by increasing the number of prosecutors.

Interestingly, my definition of "selective demolition" actually sounds and looks a lot like what The Sun terms "strategic demolition." I believe that we have made a significant departure from the old way of doing things. In Sandtown Winchester and Historic East Baltimore, we are demolishing entire blocks where it fits in with the community's overall land-use plan.

Few totally vacant blocks

Fortunately and unfortunately, Baltimore has very few blocks that are 100 percent vacant, as do Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Washington and Richmond, where I understand broad-scale demolition has been tried. In order to demolish on a larger scale, we have had to relocate people from substandard housing in every instance.

In regard to municipal liens, the Sun reporters got hold of the wrong end of the telescope. Let me explain:

Municipal liens result from abandonment; they do not cause abandonment. The owner who has walked away from his obligation to keep his property from deteriorating to the point that it damages adjoining property and blights the neighborhood and his obligation to comply with violation notices is the one whose property is subjected to city liens.

All liens other than taxes are placed on property only after the owner's failure to comply with notices to repair conditions in violation of the law. The owner can appeal when he first receives notice; he can appeal when he receives the subsequent notice )) of the city's intent to do the required work; he can appeal again when he is sent the bill for the work done by the city. And as for the interest and penalties you find unfair, it is within his own power to keep interest and penalties from accruing. He simply must pay his debt when it is due. Or, better yet, take care of his property like the rest of us.

We have several mechanisms in place to deal with unpaid liens when an investor or potential homesteader is interested in fixing deteriorated property. It is important to note that these mechanisms do not reward the delinquent taxpayer.

First, as you point out, there is a process by which liens can be simply abated to enable a rehabber to take title to a lien-free property. This avenue is appropriate where the liens cannot be ++ collected -- where, for instance, the delinquent taxpayer is unknown, incompetent or bankrupt.

Second, we persuaded the General Assembly to give us authority to release -- not abate -- city liens on vacant and abandoned property, without absolving the delinquent taxpayer, where the liens exceed the property's market value. This enables a property to transfer lien-free to the rehabber. These mechanisms are available in every case meeting the circumstances outlined.

We are eager to use these avenues to facilitate transfers and rehabilitations. If they are not used, it is often because demand for properties in neighborhoods where these houses exist is soft. And the people who have owned the heavily liened properties are the major perpetrators of substandard housing in these communities.

Tax sale at value

Third, we initiated legislation to enable auction of abandoned property at tax sale for its fair-market value, instead of being tied to the full amount of the liens. When this mechanism was implemented in an actual tax sale, serious practical problems arose that we are trying to iron out, but it should be obvious that the lien problem is one on which we continue to work very hard.

Another area in which we have invested a lot of money, energy and thought is getting rid of the state's "worst housing problem" (in former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's description) -- the public-housing family high-rises.

Each plan has derived enormous residual redevelopment opportunities for the surrounding communities. The demolition of 807 units at Lafayette Courts, for example, signaled the rehabilitation of the entire Jonestown-Oldtown community and supports the Washington Square development of rehabilitation and new construction just to the south and the Belair Market commercial rehabilitation to the north. The demolition of 677 units at Lexington Terrace stands as an unmistakable new beginning and impetus for redevelopment of the entire Poppleton community.

Future plans

We will soon begin implementing a plan to demolish 197 units, rehabilitate 160 units, build back home-ownership opportunities and revitalize the adjacent commercial area in Cherry Hill. We have received a $20 million grant from HUD to reduce density by 50 percent (more than 500 units) and add home-ownership at Hollander Ridge. And the demolition of the Murphy Homes (777 units will be the center point for the revitalization of the entire Upton community, as the demolition of Flag House Courts (435 units) will permit significant improvement to be made to the entire east side of downtown.

We are, in fact, the only city in the nation where the city, state and housing authority are working together to pull off large-scale changes such as those I have described. And we are the only city actually to move ahead in order to stay on schedule toward a completion date of 2002. The first families will be moving into the 60 percent-less-dense Lafayette Courts this summer.

I will go as far as to state that no city in the country has made more progress in the last few years in ridding itself of substandard properties. And, our task force is just getting revved up to move us into the next century.

Having said that, I'll be the first to admit that we have a long way to go. The HCD and HABC staff are very focused and working long hours in moving forward with turning blocks and neighborhoods into the diverse, yet proud and forward-moving city -- Baltimore -- that I love so much.

Daniel P. Henson III is commissioner of Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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