Going Cheap! Housing in Baltimore

January 01, 1994|By ANTERO PIETILA

Life is more complex than newspaper headlines would suggest. Which is why I keep a blow-up of a September 23, 1956, Baltimore American story on my office wall.

''$900 Million Plan Proposed To End City Slums By 1976,'' the headline trumpets. ''Would Raze 65,000 Homes.''

Eighteen years after that presumed dawn of Brave New Baltimore, slums are getting worse. And not just slums. Abandonment is pockmarking even Baltimore neighborhoods that had been islands of stability. By the city housing department's accounting, Baltimore now has 410 blocks where more than 50 percent of the houses are vacant. Most of them are in the slums.

But an additional 1,008 blocks throughout the city have one house vacant. Unless such houses -- which are often boarded up -- can be reoccupied rapidly, they beget neighborhood blight that is difficult to stop or reverse.

Considering the city's steadily declining population, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III thinks Baltimore ''probably has 16,000 homes too many.'' He favors selective demolition, saying the city otherwise will not be able to rejuvenate itself.

Yet the bottom-line problem is not housing but economics. If Baltimore slums are advancing today, it is because of the chronic economic and social poverty of its citizens. And if once-stable neighborhoods are threatened, that, too, is due to economics -- and people's changing lifestyle preferences.

Low interest rates and declining housing prices have conspired to create a situation in which a typical city starter home or historic rehab is no longer very appealing. Why buy a house that needs lots of work if you can get a home in a tip-top condition for just a bit more?

As a consequence, some of the older housing is begging for buyers and the real-estate market is filled with highly negotiable special situations. Last year's most remarkable example involved huge Reservoir Hill mansion -- with a carriage house and wading pool -- on Eutaw Street, near Druid Hill Park.

The property, which was habitable but needed lots of cosmetic work, ended up on the auction block after failing to sell at its $200,000 listing price. There were no bids at $150,000. The price was lowered to $75,000. Still no bids. Someone offered $57,000. The mansion finally changed hands for $65,000.

The depressed market has hit Baltimore's revival neighborhoods particularly hard. Bolton Hill is full of steals, so is Union Square. This seems to be a cyclical phase; it would be foolhardy to think of it as a permanent condition. The progress of historic city neighborhoods has often been uneven and tortuous.

The important thing is that there is spotty forward movement. Someone is doing a wonderful restoration job on a large, long-vacant Butcher's Hill town house, at the corner of Pratt and Washington streets. Across town, rehabbing activity keeps spreading from Federal Hill to South Baltimore's Formstone blocks.

Some may scorn these examples of gentrification. There is nothing wrong with gentrification. Among other things, it helps pay the bills.

The point is, 1993 was not without bright spots. Even as middle-class exodus continued out of the city, an astonishing amount of residential building took place. And this at the tail-end of a recession!

Residences were built and rehabbed to suit every pocketbook. Aside from HarborView, a new luxury waterfront condominium tower bankrolled by Far Eastern investors, much of the construction was orchestrated by the city and Mr. Henson, who was a developer before taking over the housing department.

Long-stalled low- and medium-income home-ownership projects got under way throughout the city. These new houses may not resolve any of Baltimore's fundamental problems, but they are likely to improve neighborhoods and the city's image.

One of the most impressive examples is rising along East Baltimore Street, between Eden and Caroline streets. After more than six years of planning, a non-profit development group is constructing 37 new and rehabilitated townhouses and 22 condominiums for low- and moderate-income residents.

''This single project will go a long way toward stabilizing the entire community,'' promises Mr. Henson.

Shades of 1976? Hardly. But amid severe difficulties, some things are looking up again. What is needed more than ever is an aggressive campaign to market city housing values.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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