Photo: Yepoka Yeebo / Business Insider
In Baltimore the wrecks stretch for blocks in every direction. Shattered windows, buckling walls, sometimes just a façade, propped up by the houses on either side.The vacant streets are punctuated by the odd meticulously-kept home; a living city slowly turning into a ghost town.
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Baltimore has tried to deal with the tens of thousands of abandoned houses that mar the city. They’ve been refurbished. They’ve been raffled for $1. They’ve been demolished. But the number of vacant houses keeps growing.
There were radical efforts to seize abandoned homes and sell off city-owned property. In the nineties, $100 million was poured into some of the most troubled areas. Now the city is trying another approach: jump-starting the housing markets in healthier neighborhoods.
As Baltimore faces a $52 million budget shortfall, there is a more urgent need than ever to deal with the vacant homes, which still require public services like fire and police patrol.
47,000 vacant properties.
The numbers vary depending on who’s counting, but the highest estimates suggest there are 46,800 vacant houses and lots in Baltimore — 16 per cent of the city’s residences. Around 16,000 actual vacant houses are registered with the city, many owned by people who just walked away, leaving the city to clean up the mess and eventually seize them in tax foreclosures.
The Housing Authority Of Baltimore is focusing its limited resources on rehabilitating almost 1,000 houses in the neighborhoods with the most viable housing markets. It will pursue and fine slumlords to force them to sell or make improvements. Where the houses are owned by the city they’ll be put up for sale, with tax breaks and small grants to encourage people to buy and developers to invest.
As for the rest of the abandoned properties, where it can afford to, the city will still be dealing with the most dangerous structures. Eventually, the plan calls for demolishing the most distressed housing, and holding onto the land until there’s scope for large-scale development.
Baltimore Slumlord Watch names and shames the owners of the most decrepit buildings. The blogger behind it said while residents wanted a solution more than ever, the city was just replicating the problem: They were asking people to buy abandoned homes in struggling neighborhoods with no guarantee the rest of the block would improve. “It’s basically the same initiative, just re-branded,” said the blogger, who asked to remain anonymous.
‘Afraid to come out of the house.’
When Regina Shields bought her tidy, three-story row house in central Baltimore 15 years ago, her neighbourhood was quiet and full of families. As they moved away, the problems grew.
The house next door to hers has been nothing but trouble. “People would go in and use it as a shooting gallery, I would be afraid to come out of the house,” said Shields, who is 56.
Junkies would hide in the vestibule and try to mug passing residents. Prostitutes and Johns would sneak into the basement. Her car windows were shot out, Shields said. The chaos kept spilling into her home: “Somebody went in and tried to bust through the wall to get into my house,” said Shields. She had to call the city and beg to have the house locked and boarded up.
“For the neighborhoods, it’s devastating,” said Dan Kildee, the president of the centre for Community Progress, which develops strategies for cities with huge vacant property problems. “Abandoned property is like a contagious disease. A city block with one abandoned house, every property owner will experience a significant loss of value of their property,” Kildee said. “Even speculators are now walking away from properties because there’s very little likelihood of a return on their investment.”
‘The market can do the heavy lifting’
Shields’ neighbourhood, Greenmount West, is a patchwork of grand old middle-class homes and the notably less grand blocks where scenes from the HBO show “The Wire” were shot. It’s one of the areas analysts decided could be pulled from the brink of decline.
“A lot of the heavy lifting can be done by the market, as opposed to the municipality, state or city,” said Ira Goldstein, director of policy solutions at The Reinvestment Fund, who produced the assessment that Baltimore used to pinpoint stronger neighborhoods. Analysts factor in Baltimore’s block-by-block differences, along with everything from foreclosures to house prices, said Goldstein.
“Too often, what we’ve done with the allocation of federal dollars cities get, is just find the poorest, most distressed place, and dump as much as you can in there, and see what happens,” he said. The results were weak, Goldstein explained, because the city would renovate houses no one wanted to buy. The money would be better-spent spurring interest in more attractive neighborhoods.
‘Throwing money right into the middle of a war zone’
While it’s too early to tell, developers told us that Baltimore’s current approach is one of the strongest yet. “To our dismay, [in the past] the city would build into the middle of a blighted area, and do a block because they own a bunch of properties there,” said developer Jack Bevier, who works for local firm The Dominion Group.
“They would just throw a bunch of money right into the middle of a war zone,” he added.
It’s also an approach that has been successful before. In 1996, residents in the east Baltimore neighbourhood of Patterson Park saw the familiar pattern of fleeing homeowners, encroaching slumlords and abandonment, and took action.
“The only way you could stop things going south was to control the real estate, and the only way to do that was to buy a lot of it,” said Ed Rutkowski, the founder of the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, a largely self-financed group which bought and renovated houses in the neighbourhood for 12 years, leading the way for developers.
Some experts are sceptical that the same market forces that destroyed neighborhoods in Baltimore can be trusted to salvage others. “There’s this obsession that the invisible hand of the market can cure all ills,” said city policy expert Kildee.
“Anybody who’s spent any time in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore or Flint, can see what the market has done to those neighborhoods. It’s destroyed them.”
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