Residents speak out on housing demolition; City Council holds hearing on resolution to curb razing of vacant homes


The city should continue to demolish vacant houses while it improves communication with neighborhoods where the practice is occurring, Baltimore residents argued yesterday in a packed City Council hearing.

About 75 residents crowded council chambers to speak on a council resolution introduced two weeks ago asking Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to stop toppling vacant city houses. The resolution received unanimous council support.

The housing committee will move the resolution to the council in the next two weeks for a final vote on whether to send it to Schmoke.

Dirty vacant lots

West Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. sponsored the measure because an increasing number of residents have complained about trash dumping and weeds on lots left vacant by the demolitions.

After a slide presentation by City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III defending the city's 3-year-old policy, residents agreed that tearing down homes in the middle of city blocks eliminated eyesores and fire hazards.

But homeowners complained that they are often left out of the discussion about when a house is coming down and what, if any, plans the city has for the vacant lot.

"The resolution is about a segment of the population who do not have access to the process," said Valerie Jennings Carpenter, director of community building for Greater Homewood Community Corp.

Sandi McFadden-Gboyah, who represents Midway/Barclay Community Development Corp. in East Baltimore, agreed.

Poor communication

"We are not saying that houses do not need to be demolished," McFadden-Gboyah said. "People wake up, and the cranes are outside their doors."

The city estimates that 40,000 vacant houses remain in Baltimore. The intensity of the city's demolition effort -- 2,500 have been razed -- is scheduled to increase to 2,500 homes a year over the next three years.

The city lost 300,000 residents between 1950 and 1996, when Henson began knocking down vacant homes. The goal was to reduce housing stock to fit the population. Community groups also had complained that the vacant houses harbored vagrants and drug addicts.

Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. testified yesterday that half the city's fires occur in vacant houses, where firefighters are more likely to be injured.

Henson testified yesterday that the city uses orange, red and yellow postings on condemned buildings and neighboring homes to alert residents about each step of the demolition process.

Yet Henson conceded that once buildings are torn down, the city has neither a system nor the money to maintain or fence the lots. Henson, who became commissioner in 1993 and could be replaced when a new mayor takes office Dec. 8, said his department is working at Schmoke's request to establish a plan by Nov. 1 for maintaining vacant lots.

City 'land bank'

The city's best hope, Henson said, is establishing a "land bank" that would allow the city to keep an inventory of vacant lots. The city would then be able to offer the land to developers. Henson said he hopes to have the land banking system in place before December.

"You can solve this problem," Henson told residents. "You are going to have to grit your teeth for a while."

Despite the council's call for a halt, Henson has moved forward with hiring contractors to continue the demolitions. The city Board of Estimates recently approved a contract of up to $1 million to hire a consultant to help prepare the bids. Last week, the housing department sought demolition bids on contracts that will range from $500,000 to $1 million.

Mitchell said his measure is intended to increase discussion with city neighborhoods about vacant properties. "It's not just arbitrarily saying, 'Stop tearing down the housing,' " Mitchell said. "The whole intent of the [resolution] is to make sure community groups have input."

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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