Attacking housing blight

October 11, 1994

In the past three decades, Baltimore City's population has shrunk from 950,000 to 730,000.

The decline has been so sharp, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III estimates, Baltimore "probably has 16,000 homes too many." Because many of those homes are vacant and vandalized, he advocates selective demolition throughout the city.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. If a building has outlived its usefulness and poses a hazard, it ought to be demolished.

Large-scale demolition should be conducted according to a plan, however.

Such a plan should also seriously consider comprehensive rezoning of non-viable neighborhoods to create land for badly needed commercial and industrial developments. That way the city could turn large parcels of vacant land into profitable use and gain new tax revenues.

Is this a pipe dream? No, if razing is done thoughtfully and the vacant land is marketed imaginatively. With all the infrastructure in place, the city ought to be able to compete with its neighboring counties for the types of businesses that would fit in.

Having lost thousands of jobs in recent years, the city must become more aggressive in all kinds of economic development efforts.

As Baltimore's population has declined, the vacant house problem has become more serious. According to the housing department's accounting, the city now has 410 blocks where more than 50 percent of the houses are vacant.

But an additional 1,008 blocks throughout the city have one house vacant. Unless deterioration can be arrested, it may spread.

Unfortunately, the city has become increasingly lax in its efforts to enforce the housing code.

The number of inspections decreased from 43,225 in 1989 to 33,466 in 1991. Because of budget cuts, the trend continues. Meanwhile, the number of violation notices plummeted from 27,709 to 20,775.

Mr. Henson should make tough code enforcement a priority again. Otherwise, the decline of neighborhoods is bound to continue. That, in turn, depresses housing prices, resulting in less tax revenue to the city.

Selective razing is an approach that has its merits. But the city can encourage neighborhood improvement by hauling negligent property owners to court.

As showed by the work of Michael Braverman, the last effective housing prosecutor, going after such owners can produce amazing improvements. All it requires is motivation and dogged persistence.

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