The number of vacant houses in Baltimore has risen by about 500 in the past year to 6,869, meaning that about 2.5 percent of the city's housing stock is now empty and unfit for habitation.
Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, said the number of vacant homes is now about 450 more than in 1980, before the opening of Harborplace, the symbol of the city's renaissance, and is 1,301 more than in 1985.
About 1,280 of the vacant homes are owned by the city or the Baltimore City Housing Authority, whose officials say they cannot move quickly to renovate all of them because they don't have enough money.
"The answer to the vacant house problem, in this city as in other cities, is money," Mr. Toohey said.
Neither landlords nor the city find it economically viable to rehabilitate many city rowhouses because the renovation costs cannot be recouped by renting them, Mr. Toohey said. Meanwhile, the Community Development Block Grant Program and other federal programs that once aided the renovation of city housing have been reduced or eliminated.
For example, he said, the program that once funded the city's "dollar house" program, which is credited with revitalizing neighborhoods such as Otterbein, no longer exists. And the city's annual share of the block grant program, as high as $43 million in 1978, is now $25 million. Those figures do not include adjustments for inflation, he said.
The lack of funding is so acute that the city has in most cases stopped taking title to properties in impoverished neighborhoods whose owners don't pay their property taxes, Mr. Toohey said. There is no point to the city taking over most of the 5,500-plus privately owned vacant homes because the city doesn't have enough money to fix the homes it already has.
Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless in Baltimore, said she understands many of the obstacles that prevent the city from fixing many of the homes it owns. The obstacles are especially daunting when it comes to the 709 homes, mostly rowhouses, that are owned by the city but are not part of the housing authority, she said.
"For the most part it costs so much to fix [abandoned rowhouses] that poor people couldn't afford the rents. It's not cost-effective," said Ms.Pinette.
The 6,869 vacant homes compare with a total of 276,000 housing units in the city.
But advocates for the homeless and people who live in substandard housing do criticize the city for allowing the vacancy rate in the authority's 18,000 units to rise.
The vacancy rate in the Housing Authority's units has risen to 3.2 percent from 1.5 percent in 1987, said state Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore. He said the authority had 579 vacant units when he researched the issue recently.
"The vacancy rate [in public housing] is something that has got ** to be addressed," Mr. Rosenberg said.
Said Ms. Pinette, "There are hundreds of units that are vacant at any given time. Money is a piece of the problem, but more could be done with a concerted effort. . . . It seems to be an attitude of, 'It can't be done.' "
The Housing Authority does have the money in hand to fix most of the 354 rowhouses among its empty units, Mr. Toohey said. Money to renovate 213 of those buildings was approved by the federal government in fiscal 1990 and 1991, but only now are the required plan approvals coming through from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The authority has applied for money to renovate another 96 buildings.