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How Hogan can best help city deal with vacants

Money, more than bulldozer, is what city needs in its vacant house strategy

It's one of those things somebody says at a backyard barbecue when the subject turns to Baltimore and what needs to be done to make the city a better place: "For one thing, they should tear down all those vacant houses."

I've been hearing this suggestion for the last four decades, a time when the city experienced significant population loss. It's a reaction to jarring images of abandoned rowhouses that symbolize "the rot beneath the glitter," a phrase famously quoted in a 1986 Goldseker Foundation report about the city's prospects following the Inner Harbor renaissance. For many people, especially those offering their opinions from the suburbs, the solution seems obvious, simple, even irresistible: Just clear ugly blocks of abandoned houses on the blighted east side or on the crumbling west side, and . . .

And what?

People who call for bulldozing whole blocks seem to think that a developer will suddenly find the flattened area wildly attractive and build new, well-appointed "townhomes" for Baltimore's growing professional class. In that dream, there's no consideration of geography — whether the demolished blocks are anywhere near a job center or supermarket or school or even an adjoining neighborhood that's stable and attractive. And there's no accounting for people who already live in or near the blighted areas. What happens to them? This is complicated stuff.

Some people believe the demolition of old, decrepit Baltimore will create grand opportunities for more green space — vast city parks and sprawling urban gardens. I once wholeheartedly supported that idea, but not so much anymore. (More on that later.)

Some believe that, at the very least, more demolition will give areas of the city a psychological lift and a break from crime. That sounds good, but unless those areas are refilled, they could start in time to look hopeless.

Maryland's governor, Larry Hogan, expressed love and support for the city in an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 18. He pledged to help, and knocking down buildings was at the top of his agenda.

"Fixing what's broken in Baltimore starts with the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings that infect entire neighborhoods," Hogan said. "These empty, decaying structures are a breeding ground for crime and an impediment to private sector investment. … Therefore, my administration will advance a plan to knock down blocks of derelict buildings that tarnish communities across Baltimore, replacing them with parks and other open spaces."

A couple of things.

First, a reminder about what I said after the April 27 riot: With the nation's eyes on Baltimore, the Republican governor of Maryland, a suburban real estate broker and not a professional politician, had an opportunity to strike a new course for his party — right through the heart of a city that had not seen any help from Republican leadership in half a century. But Hogan did not take the challenge, and his relationship with Baltimore's mayor seemed frigid at best. Hogan kicked the city when it was down by killing the Red Line light rail plan and using the savings on suburban and rural road projects.

Now that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has decided not to seek re-election, Hogan has come around again, expressing a desire to help the city. That's great.

But, please, sir, just send money, not a bulldozer.

Talk of knocking down "blocks of derelict buildings" makes the governor sound like that guy at the backyard barbecue. He should know better. While some whole blocks might need to go, many with vacant rowhouses also have homes that are owner-occupied. As I said: Complicated.

Resolving Baltimore's vacant house problem involves vigorous housing code enforcement; going to court to seize properties; respecting the rights of homeowners who live in or near blighted properties and, if necessary, relocating them (at significant expense to taxpayers); getting developers to invest; giving financial incentives to homebuyers willing to rehabilitate houses; dealing with neighbors and raw emotions that can sink even small projects with great merit.

Hogan should also acknowledge the work already being done. Since November 2010, when the city's Vacants To Value project started, Baltimore has seen a 35 percent drop in vacant buildings in 24 "community development" areas, according to Paul Graziano, housing commissioner. The city has demolished 1,636 blighted buildings in that time, with another 2,466 renovated or under renovation.

More demolition needs to be done; the city has targeted areas, in some cases whole blocks. But it's expensive. "Demolition is our last resort, not our first, and it will only be undertaken when it is not feasible to renovate," Graziano says.

Opening space for parks sounds enticing, but I also get post-apocalyptic visions of trash-strewn, weed-infested acres where nothing happens for decades. The better strategy is to rehab houses and repopulate neighborhoods, with green pocket parks on vacant lots. And mixed-income housing is essential.

Tell you what, governor: Take a tour with Graziano and his staff, identify a few well-designed, can't-fail projects that have the potential to spur others, then get the money that's needed to kick them off. Do that, and we'll elect you mayor, too.

Dan Rodricks' column runs Wednesday and Sunday. He also will provide online commentary in his Roughly Speaking blog.

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