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The problem with 'Vacants to Value'

Community Law Center offers free legal services to communities that can't afford them — mostly those neighborhoods that have been left behind for a long time. For us, the problem with Baltimore's Vacants to Value initiative is, quite simply, that it continues to leave behind these neighborhoods we know so well, despite their high concentrations of vacant properties.

In so doing, the program discounts the very heart and soul that is the strength of the city: the committed long-term community members whose vision, optimism and hope inspires confidence against all odds — and frequently defies those odds.

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A new report on the city's vacants initiative released last week by the Abell Foundation praises Vacants to Value's expansion of "receivership," which allows a judge to seize a property from an owner and transfer it to a nonprofit to auction off. But the program strayed too far from its roots when it expanded. Community Law Center created receivership as a way to foster neighborhood-based responses to vacant properties. Today, the receivership decisions are made by the city for the neighborhoods, often without meaningful partnerships that aid transparency, community engagement and empowerment.

In some struggling neighborhoods, Vacants to Value's strategy consists mostly of block demolition, leaving vacant lots behind that quickly become trash-strewn eyesores, while houses nearby continue their way toward demolition by neglect.

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For those seeking an alternate vision for Baltimore's many long-vacant properties, they need to look no further than the long-term community leaders who reside in the left behind neighborhoods. In addition to being the people most familiar with and affected by the litany of ill effects of vacant properties — rats, trash, illegal dumping, flooded basements, fires, drug and criminal activity, negative health outcomes and loss of equity — they know the cure to reverse that trend. This vision of these neighborhood leaders is no secret nor is it complicated:

•Communities should be more fully supported with well-resourced revitalization efforts, like fully funded robust community development corporations.

•All neighborhoods should enjoy strong, engaged relationships with city agencies, which should be easily accessible, transparent and navigable for our most vulnerable residents — not just those with the connections and influence who know whom to call.

•Policies, like tax sale foreclosure, must be reformed, so that they encourage responsible property ownership and investment by both preserving homeownership (with an emphasis on affordability) and quickly putting vacant properties into active use.

•All publicly-owned properties should be fully remediated so that they are not some of the most derelict, problematic properties in any neighborhood. This needs to be done either by rehabilitation or, if by demolition, there should be a plan to ensure that it is regularly kept up and well-maintained as open space.

The time is well overdue for a bold community-based vision to address vacant properties that works much harder to make sure no neighborhood, even those with the most challenges, is ever left behind.

We are not so naïve as to believe there's any one thing that will fix the vacant property problem, nor do we expect one neighborhood or official to have all the answers to this complex problem. But by working closely together and by really listening to some of our most valuable residents — those who have stuck it out in their neighborhoods through thick and thin and make this city the place we love and feel at home — we can chip away at the vacants dilemma. It requires thinking creatively, holistically, and engaging the grassroots across the city's divide. Most importantly, it means letting those who have been left behind lead the way forward.

Robin Jacobs is director of strategic legal services projects for Community Law Center. Her email is robinj@communitylaw.org.

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