A row of vacant homes in Baltimore.
A row of vacant homes in Baltimore. (Kayla James)

A recent editorial in The Baltimore Sun about proposed City Council legislation seeking to better manage vacant buildings suggested that a smarter fix would be for the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development to simply use the tools and authority already in our hands (“Shaming signs not the best way to deal with vacant houses,” Sept. 4). This opinion relies on incorrect facts about both the problem and the solutions that we want to clarify and correct.

The proposed legislation requires owners of vacant buildings to post signage on their buildings, including their contact information, so residents can help hold them accountable. We believe this could help, and DHCD is working with the bill’s sponsor to reach agreement on the best way to provide that information while, at the same time, we recognize that larger challenges persist. For example, thousands of the city’s vacant structures are truly abandoned and as such will not be responsive to the legislation.

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Addressing this and other barriers to blight elimination requires community planning and the design of strategies that increase value and encourage investment in disinvested neighborhoods and ensure collaboration with community partners. We have developed a course of action for that in our Community Development Framework, which is available at dhcd.baltimorecity.gov. As always, we invite feedback and questions, and most of all, partnership, as there is a lot of work to do.

With regard to the allegation that DHCD is not fully utilizing the code enforcement tools currently available to combat vacancy, we’d like to set the record straight.

DHCD is responsible for enforcing the City’s housing, zoning, building and related codes. The agency has been generally acknowledged as a national leader in the work of code enforcement and the efficient, effective and data-driven delivery of local government services. Every year, DHCD responds to nearly 70,000 citizen requests from 311, conducts 250,000 housing inspections, issues 30,000 violation notices, issues 30,000 citations and registers 55,000 properties. In these efforts, we work in close collaboration with community leaders and elected officials and have achieved extraordinary outcomes where code enforcement can leverage them.

Our code enforcement efforts rest on the work of our City Council, including Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. They have passed some of the best code enforcement legislation in the nation. They provided administrative citation authority and, in particular, the ability to petition the court to appoint a receiver to auction vacant properties. The Baltimore vacant property receivership ordinance has been cited by industry leaders as arguably the most effective and most widely used such law in effect anywhere in the United States. It has become an effective method of moving large numbers of vacant properties into new ownership and reuse. DHCD files approximately 400 receivership cases per year with more than 2,000 receiverships filed since the beginning of 2015.

Addressing issues of blight and abandoned housing are among the most daunting challenges we face as a community. For the past decade, the number of structures with vacant building notices has hovered between 16,000 and 17,000 of which the vast majority are privately owned. Despite an increase in the number of vacant buildings rehabbed and reoccupied, and in the number demolished, the total number of vacant buildings has stayed roughly the same due to continued population decline in many parts of the city which results in abandonment. Therefore, the progress being made reducing the number of vacant and abandoned buildings in many neighborhoods gets overshadowed when new properties are abandoned.

That said, there is a core of between 6,000 and 7,000 vacant houses that have been boarded up and deteriorating for more than a decade. To commit to change where vacant buildings are most concentrated requires a commitment to resources for, among other things, acquisition, site assembly, subsidy, stabilization and often, demolition. Policy approaches that rely on the last owner of record for these properties will be largely ineffective — including relying on the current registration ordinance.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the property registration statute is being utilized and enforced as intended. Since 2014, almost 30,000 registration citations have been issued pushing property owners to comply with registration requirements. Roughly 5,000 investigations are completed every year and ownership data and much more is currently public and has long been available on the city’s website (http://cels.baltimorehousing.org/codemap/codeMapexternal.html). However, as The Sun’s editorial board notes, when communities work with DHCD to help bring about compliance, there is a higher yield in the reduction of blight. The bottom line is that we all need to work together, utilizing the ever-expanding tools that we have to continue to address the problem of blighted and vacant housing in our city.

Michael Braverman, Baltimore

The writer is commissioner of the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development.

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