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Shaming signs not the best way to deal with vacant houses

Demolition crew knocks down row houses after ceremony where former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh operated the excavator to start the demolition of a block of vacant row houses at 502-522 Baker Street in west Baltimore as part of her "Vacants to Value," A New Era of Neighborhood Investment initiative.
Demolition crew knocks down row houses after ceremony where former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh operated the excavator to start the demolition of a block of vacant row houses at 502-522 Baker Street in west Baltimore as part of her "Vacants to Value," A New Era of Neighborhood Investment initiative. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Councilman Kristerfer Burnett is 100% correct on his assessment of the vacant housing that plagues the city. It represents a huge nuisance, a frustrating and unabating problem that no administration in recent history has come even close to eradicating. Bordered up and dilapidated homes with no one living in them create an eyesore, are magnets for littering, attract crime, bring down the values of properties in neighborhoods and create a depressing and hopeless atmosphere. Nothing good comes from these properties.

Mr. Burnett has proposed taking The Scarlet Letter approach to holding the owners of neglected homes accountable. In essence, he hopes to shame people into compliance with housing codes. A bill he has introduced would require owners to post signs with their name, address, phone number and email. Properties in default or foreclosure would be required to post the contact information of creditor or lien holders.

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The idea is for everyone to know who is responsible. Residents can bombard the owner with complaints and the hope is that they will be embarrassed enough to do what’s right in terms of maintenance and upkeep.

We are all for exerting the pressure on absentee owners and not above the idea of shaming as well. But given that the city is already resource-strapped, we don’t believe this is easiest or best way to achieve the goal. Any manpower should go toward enforcing the laws that are already on the books.

It does little good for the public to know the owner of a property when it is the city that must hold them accountable. An owner can block the calls or ignore the emails of an annoyed public — especially the out-of-towners with no real commitment to the neighborhood. They are more likely to respond to a stack of fines from city inspectors, followed up by a court appearance or threat to take their property if the penalties aren’t paid. (We also need more programs to help the city unload properties once they take them from owners.) The city has to become a nuisance to them, like the owners are a nuisance to residents.

It would be more productive for residents to combine forces and report problem properties to the city’s 311 system. Neighborhood associations could lead the effort by creating a database of the unkempt homes in their neighborhood and enlisting the help of their City Council members to make violations known to housing officials. A new non-profit, Fight Blight Baltimore, has developed an app to help residents do just that.

This method requires consistent vigilance, as property owners can clean up violations one month and resort to old ways the next. But it can also bring to the attention of city officials properties they might not know are vacant. Housing officials only know that somebody has declared ownership, but not if they are taking care of, or even living in, the house. It would also bring unregistered rental properties to the attention of the city. Rental properties must meet new stringent inspection standards, but if nobody knows they exist, they can’t be held accountable.

A large obstacle in the battle against vacants is that there is no clear grasp on the number of these properties that even exist in the city. The official number the city often throws around is 17,000, but some dispute that as being conservative. And the problem is an ever-changing one with new vacant homes popping up even after others are renovated or knocked down.

The spirit of Mr. Burnett’s legislation is on the right track. The public certainly has a right to know the identity of property owners. Rather than require owners to post signs like Mr. Burnett suggests, the city should create an easily searchable database with the names and contact information of the owners, as well as any violations. That would be more useful over the long-term than signs on the doors or windows of houses. Residents can get that information for some owners now, but it takes a search of property tax records or business registration records. And there is certainly no way to contact the owners. Owners who refuse to offer up information for the database would be fined.

We still like the shaming idea as well, but maybe in another incarnation. In 2009, a resident tired of investors with no emotional stake in the city created the website Baltimore Slumlord Watch for residents to share information on slumlords who didn’t take care of their properties. Perhaps the city could get involved in exposing the most flagrant culprits from time to time, much like the state comptroller’s office sometimes does with those who owe hefty tax bills.

Still, at the end of the day, these databases, signs and other public identifiers make no difference if the city doesn’t enforce laws that exist to hold property owners responsible. Shaming is one thing. Accountability is another.

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