Needed: Attack on Vacant Houses

January 08, 1992

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke first took office in 1987, he pledged to recycle dilapidated vacant houses back into the city's housing stock. The mayor can cite some successes. But mounting evidence suggests that far from getting better, Baltimore's vacant housing situation is getting worse.

The number of boarded-up houses is rapidly climbing, particularly in the inner-city. A new trend also is evident. Houses are no longer even boarded up but are allowed to create a public safety hazard as a haven for drug addicts and targets for would-be arsonists.

One of those houses is a 30-room mansion at the corner of West Lombard and South Stricker streets. Once the home of William C. Turnbull, a merchant of furnishings and rugs, the 1860s Victorian house has stood vacant for years. Repeated attempts by the Union Square Historic District's residents to force the owner to stabilize it finally led to the transfer of the property to a Washington-area partnership last year.

The new owners have allowed the mansion to deteriorate further. Its roof is about to collapse. Its cornices are sagging. And several street-level windows are broken, giving thieves and vandals free access to the building and whatever fireplaces and marble artifacts still remain inside.

There are countless buildings like the Turnbull mansion around Baltimore. By not taking aggressive action against their owners, city authorities are allowing whole neighborhoods to deteriorate. In historic areas, activists have coined a phrase to describe such inaction: "demolition by neglect."

If city housing officials want to hide behind excuses, they have more than enough in these hard budgetary times. If they want to take action, however, we can suggest a simple legal strategy that is certain to produce quick results.

Currently, if public safety requires emergency repairs or the boarding up of a derelict house by the city, a lien is attached to the property. That, of course, seldom does any good. It only adds encumbrances to a structure of questionable value, thus making its conversion to profitable use even more difficult.

But what if the city started attaching liens to the personal residences of the owners? When liens and judgments begin appearing on their credit reports, most people are only too eager to start unburdening vacant properties that cause such problems.

Can this be done? Yes, in cases involving individual owners and general partnerships, but it would not be so easy in cases of corporations, unless evasion of responsibility is established.

With speculative shell corporations milking the city, the question seems ripe for a test case. It is time for Baltimore to send TC strong message that it is serious about getting rid of vacant houses.

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