City's Worsening Housing Crisis

January 08, 1993

Consider this bureaucratic oddity in Baltimore's municipal government: Robert W. Hearn is not only the city housing commissioner but also executive director of the federally funded Housing Authority. He is the landlord to thousands of Baltimoreans living in public housing projects -- high-rise and low-rise tenements for low-income families and senior citizens.

This arrangement has obvious benefits. When one man is in charge of all governmental housing programs, it ought to result in better coordination of efforts and meshing of economies.

But such an arrangement also carries the danger of overloading one person with too many responsibilities for planning, decision-making and oversight.

Baltimore is slipping badly in its overall housing situation. Some of the reasons are economic and are visible in any big American city. But others are due to arguable priorities, increasingly lax housing code enforcement, unnecessary red tape and failing local management of the public housing stock.

Once a city and its neighborhoods experience a large-scale deterioration of its housing, a turn-around takes a virtual miracle. An increasing number of formerly vibrant neighborhoods in Baltimore City are fast approaching that danger zone.

Just how bad is Baltimore's housing crisis?

According to data assembled by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, the number of city vacant houses increased by 29 percent in the past decade. Of the 27,222 vacant units in 1990, 28 percent were permanently abandoned, 54 percent were substandard and only 18 percent in compliance with building codes. "Sixty percent of the abandoned housing stock has been abandoned more than two years and therefore is unlikely to be salvageable," the researchers noted ominously.

These are shocking numbers.

Meanwhile, budget cuts have so bruised the housing department it is "overworked and demoralized," according to the Hopkins survey. Inspections have become so infrequent and sporadic that rowhouse units -- by far the most common rental housing in the city -- are only inspected when requested by occupants. The Housing Court is a shameful farce.

These problems are well known. What is needed is an urgent, clear-cut strategy by politicians, bureaucrats and private investors to rid the city of vacant houses and to stop further deterioration of neighborhoods. There is no time to waste.

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