No Quick-Fix for Vacant Houses

October 08, 1994

This much is indisputable: The number of vacant houses in Baltimore City has risen alarmingly in recent years. There are no accurate numbers, though. Forget the 7,700 figure the housing department likes to throw around. Nearly two years ago, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies put vacant houses in the city at 27,222. "Sixty percent of the abandoned housing stock has been abandoned more than two years and therefore is unlikely to be salvageable," researchers concluded.

What is to be done?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has issued an ultimatum to negligent owners of abandoned properties: fix them or the city will raze them -- headline-grabbing stuff. It is a quick-fix tactic to take care of a problem that got out of hand during years of City Hall inaction. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problem, the administration is going for a quick and easy solution, even though, if practiced widely, it could lead to snaggle-toothed blocks in marginal neighborhoods.

Selective demolition has value in some cases. But much of today's decay in Baltimore's worst neighborhoods is of the city's own doing.

The city controls many of the derelict houses that are spreading the blight. Robert Hearn, the do-nothing Schmoke housing commissioner for five years, created a situation where large-scale housing code violations were tolerated through the dismantling of an effective prosecution team and the decimation of housing inspection services.

This negligence coincided with the collapse of the go-go economy of the 1980s. Suddenly, speculators who had borrowed large amounts of money based on the inflated value of inner-city properties found their house of cards falling. Facing costly lead-paint liabilities, they abandoned worthless investment properties.

Selective demolition is an easy way out. It clears a parcel. But it also creates demolition costs and creates an empty lot. Unless the city finds a taker for such a tract, liens will never be redeemed.

A more time-consuming -- but intelligent -- approach combines demolition with aggressive prosecution. Where it has been tried -- such as on South Carey Street, between Baltimore and Hollins streets -- results have been encouraging.

But it requires tough and motivated prosecutors. And an administration that is committed to seeking permanent solutions and not just quick fixes. High housing standards cannot be maintained without unflagging City Hall vigilance.

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