The premise of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Vacants to Value” program seems simple enough. Baltimore has about 16,000 vacant properties, and the mayor and her housing department have devised strategies to try to return them to productive use. But a dispute over a pair of lots being used by an urban farming operation in Hampden makes clear that the meanings of the words “vacant” and “value” aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.
Baltimore Free Farm has had an agreement with the city for the last few years to farm three lots on Ash Street under the Adopt-a-Lot program, an offshoot of Vacants to Value. Under that program, community groups are allowed to take over city-owned vacant parcels for gardens, parks or other uses for free for a set period of time. The group asked to adopt two adjacent lots on Baldwin Street, but the city said no, believing that it might be able to sell them for residential development. The farmers decided to clean them up anyway and eventually started planting on them. From their point of view, they have taken two vacant lots and given them value. And given the Free Farm’s charitable work and its practice of donating fresh produce to the community, it has arguably given them more value than residential development would.
But last month, Baltimore’s Housing Department put the two lots out to bid after a developer expressed an interest in building houses on them. Free Farm volunteers raised money and put in their own bid, and the winner has not yet been determined, but the farm’s supporters argue that the city should have given the lots to the farmers in the first place.
The farm group knew from the beginning that the city wanted to develop those lots. They can’t ask for the rules to be changed after the fact. But the saga does suggest that rethinking of some aspects of Vacants to Value might be in order.
What the Free Farm-ers experience demonstrates is that the Adopt-a-Lot program is all sweat and no equity. They have put in a great deal of effort to clean up trash-strewn, weed-choked eyesores and make them not only attractive but also a productive part of the community. Other groups across the city have done the same thing by creating gardens, parks and playgrounds. Not only was that fact not a consideration in the city’s decision about the ultimate fate of the Baldwin Street lots, it’s entirely possible that the Ash Street lots that the group has been farming with the city’s blessing could be sold as well.
The city does have an arrangement with a local land trust that can, in some circumstances, allow lots to be preserved permanently as open space, but that has happened only rarely so far. Nor does adopting a lot necessarily take it out of the pool of properties that the city could sell. Should that happen, a group like the Baltimore Free Farm could see its efforts to improve a community turned into profits for someone else.
The city does consider factors other than who puts in the highest bid in deciding to whom to sell a Vacants to Value property, including how a proposed use would fit in with established community development plans or whether the city is hoping to assemble a larger parcel for some other use. For example, some lots have been turned into a park at the corner of Federal and Gay streets. But given the scope of Vacants to Value and the mayor’s other efforts to grow the city during the next decade, it may be time for a more holistic assessment of where it makes sense to establish urban farms, open space and parks, and where the city should seek new residential development.
In the meantime, Baltimore needs to better recognize the efforts of the hundreds of community groups that have voluntarily and freely taken responsibility for improving vacant lots. The city should not be able to sell a lot in the middle of a lease, and it needs to make the process for making the “adoption” of a lot permanent more transparent and predictable. After all, redevelopment is not the only way to turn a vacant to value.