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Detailing a twin effort to stabilize neighborhoods while razing thousands of properties, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III outlined his attack on Baltimore's vacant and blighted housing yesterday.

On one hand, he'll pursue an aggressive demolition campaign in a city he says has 16,000 too many properties. On the other, he'll work with community groups to raze the most troublesome structures without leaving behind gap-toothed blocks where empty lots squat beside empty rowhouses.

All the while, the commissioner said, he and other city officials are working to increase at a clip of 5 percent a year the number of city blocks considered "stable" -- meaning no abandoned dwellings and property values that are stable or increasing.

He discussed his plan at a housing conference yesterday, two weeks after a Sun series spotlighted a seemingly haphazard city demolition and code enforcement program. The city often hires private contractors to stabilize or demolish rundown houses, then bills owners for the work. As interest mounts, owners often abandon the properties.

By contrast, Henson describes what he calls a concerted effort to save neighborhoods. He says he remained optimistic that his program will succeed in the face of a major city population loss.

"The glass is half full," Henson told several hundred people attending the conference, "Baltimore's Vacant Housing: A New Look at the Issues & Opportunities," which was organized by the Citizens Planning & Housing Association (CPHA).

"If we don't deal with the problems now," Henson said, "Baltimore will not continue to be able to renew itself."

He spoke after a Yale University professor explained how Baltimore has become one of a crop of cities nationwide that are "undercrowded."

Douglas Rae, the Yale professor, said Baltimore fits a classic pattern: A proud city that built itself up to house a rush of residents, only to see many flee to suburban counties amid concerns over crime, education and taxes.

"You are not alone," said Rae, as he flipped a slide projector showing empty lots in cities such as Detroit.

"We are not going back to a city of nearly 1 million people," he said.

Yesterday's conference at Baltimore City Community College, planned for months, marks an important step in a far-reaching community and city campaign to address Baltimore's vacant-housing crisis.

The homeowners, activists, public officials and scholars examined the complex housing problem of how Baltimore's population has declined from nearly 1 million people to 675,000 and how 40,000 vacant or decaying houses have been left behind.

"The purpose of this conference was to explore the issues -- to blow out all the dimensions of the problem and to brainstorm what some of the solutions are," said Joseph McNeely, president of CPHA.

"I think there's a genuine appetite for some really inventive answers," he said.

They could begin to come in September, when another conference is planned to move forward on solutions.

"What would an 'undercrowded' strategy consist of?" asked Yale's Rae. "First, it begins with a public debate that gets a city beyond a state of denial."

No U.S. city that has lost as much as 10 percent of its population has gained it back, he said.

"Think about it," Rae said. "Nobody's done it. There's a reason: Look out in the counties around you. You're up against stiff competition."

Henson translated the population exodus into numbers confronting his department.

"We've got 16,000 properties too many in Baltimore City," Henson said, adding later: "We've got to lose them."

Henson said his department has already begun a careful demolition process that aims to keep neighborhoods intact. As proof, he said, just 35 of the 729 properties demolished since 1996 had stood in the middle of a block. Those houses, he said, were leveled because they posed emergency safety hazards. He said his department also gives owners several chances to shore up properties before the city goes in.

Henson said he and other city officials aim to increase the number of stable city blocks by 5 percent each year. In 1996, he said, about 50 percent of city blocks were stable.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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