Despite demolition crews working at an unprecedented pace in recent months to tear down Baltimore’s vacant houses, the number of abandoned buildings in the city has barely budged. Even as long rows of empty houses are being razed, other homes are going vacant much faster than officials had expected — for reasons they’re all but at a loss to explain.
In February, city records listed 16,724 vacant buildings. Eight months later, the figure was 16,577.
Housing officials pledged in March to finally make progress on reducing the number of crumbling, boarded-up houses that blight the city. They provided The Baltimore Sun with detailed plans for the coming year and pinpointed buildings to be demolished. Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said that by summer 2020, the city would bring the tally below 15,000 for the first time in 15 years.
Today, that goal appears to be out of reach.
An analysis of city data shows overall numbers of vacants falling rapidly in areas targeted for demolition. But in other neighborhoods across the city, the numbers have climbed, especially in six communities across Southwest Baltimore and in a cluster of three areas in East Baltimore.
Braverman said his team fell slightly short of its demolition goal for the 2019 budget year that ended June 30, and watched as “significantly more” houses than it forecast became vacant.
“We’re seeing those accruals happening in places that we were not expecting a rate that high,” Braverman said — including in neighborhoods that aren’t among the city’s most distressed.
He said his team doesn’t know the cause. “I could only speculate,” Braverman said.
A vicious cycle
While Baltimore officials can’t explain the specifics, the forces that turn properties vacant in America’s aging cities are broadly understood. As population falls, there are simply too many houses and not enough people who want to live in them. The city lost 3% of its population, or more than 18,500 people, from 2010 to 2018, according to census estimates. That’s left a population of 602,495.
Furthermore, vacant homes drag down property values, with weedy sidewalks, cracked stoops, boarded-up windows and trees growing through collapsing roofs. That puts nearby houses at greater risk of becoming the next ones to empty out.
Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress who studies housing, called it a vicious cycle.
“When you have more people moving out than moving in, that means by definition you have more supply of housing than demand for housing,” he said. “When you have that situation, and this is true whether we’re talking about Detroit or Baltimore or St. Louis ... that supply is just going to sit there.”
Vacants replacing vacants
The Baltimore records show rapid change in the landscape of vacant properties, even as the overall picture is one of stasis. From February to mid-October, 1,507 properties came off the vacant buildings list — either because they were demolished or rehabilitated. Meanwhile, housing inspectors declared another 1,360 legally vacant. Records also show more than 19,500 empty lots citywide. Almost every neighborhood in the city is affected.
Braverman said that were you to imagine a map of vacant buildings projected like the stars on a planetarium ceiling, you’d see lights blinking on and off all the time.
The data shows steady progress in a handful of neighborhoods that Braverman and his team have targeted, even as other communities see the total number of vacants lining their streets grow.
At street level
Broadway East, a square of land in East Baltimore bisected by North Gay Street, saw the most rapid change. By this fall, it had 124 fewer vacants than it did last winter.
In a six-block area abutting the Baltimore Cemetery, streets where rowhouses once stood showed buildings last month in almost every state of demolition. On some blocks, empty houses were being torn down by excavators. On others, all that remained were piles of bricks. On yet others, weeds were just beginning to sprout from newly vacant lots.
A block to the south on North Montford Avenue, Stephanie Phillips sat on a neighbor’s stoop and looked across the street. A demolition crew was knocking away five houses on her side of the block. Workers were cutting away the house next to Phillips’ home, so hers would stay intact. The work was noisy and shook the street, but Phillips said it would be done soon and she hoped the removal of the empty buildings would keep the rat population down.
“They’re finally tearing stuff down,” Phillips said. “We’re finally seeing change.”
She’s also seen the arrival of new neighbors. Roberto Valle and Laura Adriazola said they each bought houses around the corner, on East Federal Street. They were renovating them and planned to move in soon.
Tear down or save?
In Central Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore and Coldstream Homestead Montebello in Northeast Baltimore, the city is awarding acres of now-vacant land to developers, hoping to build houses, shops and businesses on streets that recently formed ghost towns. Last month, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced a national real estate nonprofit organization as the developer of a 17-acre site in Park Heights.
Still, Young was hesitant to align himself completely with the demolition strategy developed under then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned in May.
“I’m taking a different approach,” he said. “I know some have to be demolished, but not all of them. Those that we can save and rehabilitate, that is what I want to do.”
In Broadway East, the model is likely to be a bit different than in Park Heights, with housing officials working together with neighborhood leaders to develop a plan that will lead to what Braverman called a “very intentional, equitable transformation.” He said that will include money to help an initial group of homes undergo rehabilitation and financial support to ensure current homeowners can stay.
Phillips noted she has lived in the Broadway East neighborhood for 40 years, buying her home from her landlord in the 1990s. She said she would never leave.
“That’s my house,” she said. “That’s my Beverly Hills.”
She said she expects to live with some vacant lots for a while and hopes the city will be able to keep them from becoming trash dumping grounds overgrown with weeds.
“As long as they can do that, we’ll be OK,” Phillips said.
Sources of struggle
But while officials have made progress on demolitions in Broadway East and can outline the beginnings of a plan for what to do with the vacant lots they create, a group of neighborhoods just a few blocks to the southeast demonstrates why the overall number of vacant houses in the city is virtually unchanged.
In Ellwood Park/Monument, Madison-Eastend and McElderry Park, there were 27 more vacant houses in October than there were in February, according to the city’s records.
And in six neighborhoods that form a rough wedge cutting across Southwest Baltimore, there were 74 more properties vacant in October than eight months earlier. Those neighborhoods are Allendale, Carroll-South Hilton, Carrollton Ridge, Edmondson Village, Millhill and Shipley Hill.
Democratic Councilman John Bullock, who represents some of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, said they are areas that have long struggled. Even before an elementary school there closed a few years ago, he said, teachers reported students moving away throughout the academic year.
“All those neighborhoods that were mentioned have fairly transient populations,” Bullock said.
He said the recent increase could be a result of residents reporting more empty properties to the housing department. For an empty house to be officially declared vacant by the city, it must be open for anyone to go inside.
Braverman said drug dealing and other crime can also affect which properties become vacant. Often neighborhoods with high concentrations of vacants are those “where we’ve had very long presence of street-level distribution,” he said.
Across the city, 87 neighborhoods saw the numbers of vacants fall — with those targeted by the housing department for demolitions showing the steepest decreases — while 92 areas saw an overall increase.
Jason Hessler, a deputy housing commissioner, said the rise and fall of vacants in a given neighborhood reflects the numerous individual reasons houses are abandoned.
“Every vacant building has its own story,” Hessler said. “Did somebody die? Was there a fire? Was it crime activity? Is it damage to the house?”
Phillips said that on her block, she watched as neighbors moved away and landlords didn’t renovate houses and seek new tenants.
“The homeowners were the ones that are really concerned,” said Phillips, who works in IT. “The renters are the ones that are gone.”
Mallach, of the Center for Community Progress, said Baltimore’s property market varies dramatically from one area to the next.
“You might have the identical house in one neighborhood and it’ll sell immediately for a very nice price, and maybe a mile away you’ll have the identical house and it’ll sit there and ultimately be abandoned,” he said.
Plans and promises
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For years, the number of vacant buildings counted by the city has remained essentially flat. But the housing department said in March that its plan would begin to bring the numbers down by targeting some 2,000 properties for demolition.
The annual number of demolitions reported by the city has increased dramatically, from just 250 in the 2015 budget year to 720 in the year that ended June 30. But that figure was below the housing department’s projection for the year of 985.
Hessler said a ransomware attack that halted city computer systems in May caused some delays in processing paperwork and that the city didn’t always have enough demolition crews on hand.
Still, Braverman said the department is committed to demolishing the properties and expects to carry out more than 1,100 demolitions in the current budget year.
“We said that we were going to do this number of demos,” Braverman said. “We’re going to do them.”
To review the computer code that generated the analysis, go to https://bsun.md/vacants-feb-oct-2019.
Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.