Ever since Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the state is going to help fund the demolition of thousands of vacant homes in Baltimore, discussions of the scale of the vacancy problem have been bouncing around. Many activists have argued that the city, which estimates there are roughly 16,000 vacants here, has grossly undercounted because the number of vacant units measured by the 2010 U.S. Census count came to nearly 47,000. It doesn't help that even the census has multiple reports that calculate vacancy using different methods. One of those reports shows more than 58,000 vacant units in 2010 and more than 54,000 in 2014.
The real number of vacancies in Baltimore is clearly somewhere between 16,000 and 58,000. Such a large discrepancy has significant implications for both policy and psychology. In a city of Baltimore's size, 16,000 or so vacant houses is a major problem but one that can perhaps be dealt with incrementally. By contrast, having 58,000 vacant houses would mean that that as much as one-quarter of the city is doomed. It makes the problem seem hopeless.
Fortunately, I believe that the number of vacant and abandoned houses is in the lower end of that range.
It is important to understand what the census and the city are measuring when they report vacancy. The census reports any housing unit that is not currently being lived in as vacant. The city, by contrast, only reports as vacant those empty buildings that have been determined to be unfit for occupancy. Other empty buildings are classified as "unoccupied." Also, because the census measures units and the city measures buildings, there is an inevitable discrepancy. The census might report 30 vacant units in a large and mostly full building that does not show up at all in the city's vacancy list. (Personally, I wouldn't call a building where hundreds of people live a vacant building.)
The largest difference between census vacancy and the city's total is accounted for by what is known as "frictional" or turnover vacancy. Frictional vacancy describes housing units that are livable but temporarily between occupants. For example, Boston, a city about the size of Baltimore, has almost no problem with abandoned homes yet has over 22,000 census vacancies. I wouldn't tell a Bostonian that his city had over 22,000 vacant homes. Nonetheless, the difference of 32,000 between the number of census-defined vacant units in Baltimore and Boston clearly indicates that Baltimore (as we already know) does have a serious vacancy problem.
In my position with Strong City Baltimore, I have had the opportunity to work with community leaders to survey their neighborhoods, looking for abandoned homes that are not on the city's vacancy list. We always find some. Nonetheless, the number of additional abandoned homes that we are able to find and confirm is usually well under half of the number of vacant homes that the city has already listed. Based on our experience in various neighborhoods, I would estimate that the total number of abandoned homes in Baltimore is 25 percent to 50 percent higher than the number of city vacancy violations, or between 21,000 and 25,000. These additional vacant homes are important because many of them will need some kind of intervention in order to be brought back into occupancy. Also, the ability to remedy vacancies more quickly increases the likelihood that vacant homes can be rehabilitated rather than demolished.
What should be done? The code enforcement and redevelopment techniques used by the city's Vacants to Value program have proven effective but not comprehensive. Demolition in excess of the amount already funded will be required. Hundreds of homes in stable neighborhoods will need to be "stabilized" in order not to injure citizens and damage neighboring homes. Finally, a city on the road to recovery will need to intervene as quickly as possible to salvage homes as they are abandoned. All of this will cost money, but it is an investment that will avoid even greater expenses in the long run.
One other thing we should do: Stop exaggerating. Baltimoreans tend to damage ourselves by overstating the city's problems. The scale of the vacant housing problem is large enough that no exaggeration is needed.
Peter Duvall is the Neighborhood Revitalization Manager at Strong City Baltimore. His email is email@example.com.