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The value of vacants

Vacants to Value: Not as great as SRB says, but still worthwhile.

It may seem a bit ironic that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recognized the fifth anniversary this week of her Vacants to Value program by attending the knocking-down of a vacant house in the Upton neighborhood — it is not, after all, called "Vacants to Rubble." But she nonetheless offered encouraging news about Baltimore's long effort to reduce the number of unoccupied and dilapidated homes and all the blight, crime and health risks associated with them. The city claims that Vacants to Value has led to the demolition of 1,600 homes but the renovation of 2,500. The mayor posted on Facebook after the demolition, "Due to the success of the Baltimore Housing Vacants to Value Initiative, the Oliver Community has seen a 40 percent reduction in vacant properties. Together, we have taken that community from dangerous conditions and made it into a safer and more stable neighborhood."

The reality of the program is more nuanced, according to a new Abell Foundation report. Researcher Joan Jacobson spent months poring over the details and found that the city's numbers don't all survive close scrutiny — some homes counted as rehabs, for example, had building permits before the program started and others still don't have them. In the big picture, Vacants to Value has not reduced the number of abandoned, blighted homes. As of the end of last year, Baltimore reported 16,636 vacant building notices, about 500 more than when the program started. That said, Ms. Jacobson's research did validate its effects in neighborhoods like Oliver, which has in fact seen a substantial decline in vacant houses and some notable cases of concentrated rehabilitation.

Putting the program's value into context requires an understanding of what it is and what it isn't. Vacants to Value involves various components to both streamline the sale of city-owned homes and to pressure absentee owners to either renovate or sell their properties through enhanced code enforcement. It works in areas where there is a viable, even if modest, real estate market, like Oliver, Greenmount West, McElderry Park and Belair Edison, by helping to address bad blocks near good neighborhoods or isolated vacants on otherwise solid blocks. But it doesn't do much for the vast swaths of vacants in neighborhoods that have experienced almost complete disinvestment.

Vacants to Value also isn't a modern-day version of the dollar houses of the William Donald Schaefer era. Few of the homes sold through the program have gone to people who intend to renovate and occupy the homes themselves; indeed, the majority of those that have been rehabbed remain investor owned, not owner occupied.

But those aren't necessarily failures of the program. Particularly in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, Baltimore faced an urgent need to help neighborhoods on the brink — stable places that could have succumbed to blight under the pressure of the recession and housing bust. The city has undertaken other efforts, mostly through demolition, to clear vacants in the most distressed neighborhoods. And the lack of urban homesteaders reflects the difficulty individuals have in securing financing for rehabilitation. And in any case, it matters less to a community whether a house is being renovated by an owner occupant than whether it ceases to be an eyesore and public health risk.

That said, Vacants to Value can certainly be improved upon. The city should make greater efforts to convince local banks to provide more opportunities for rehab financing — other cities offer successful models — and it should offer more guidance to would-be homeowners or developers. The process can still be daunting. Baltimore should reconsider the idea of developing a land bank — an entity to coordinate the sale of city-owned property — which has been effective elsewhere. Receivership — a legal mechanism through which the city sues the owners of nuisance properties in order to transfer title to a third party, which then auctions them — has been a successful Vacants to Value strategy that can be expanded. Gov. Larry Hogan has expressed a willingness to bring more state resources to bear on Baltimore's vacant house problem, and the next mayor should make that a top priority. Finally, to make sure the city itself isn't contributing to the number of vacants, it should further increase the threshold for tax sales and sales for non-payment of water bills. This year, the General Assembly increased the triggers from $250 for tax sales and $350 for water bill sales up to $750 for either, but they could safely be raised even higher.

The history of recent mayors suggests that Ms. Rawlings-Blake's successor will probably have his or her own ideas for how to reduce blight, but Vacants to Value provides a good foundation from which to work.

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