In a quiet start of a campaign to rid Baltimore of its growing inventory of vacant properties, the Schmoke administration yesterday demolished three dilapidated homes that had become notorious drug hangouts.
The city sent a wrecking crew to the 2800 block of Walbrook Ave. to raze the long-abandoned houses, two of which were owned by private landlords and the third by the city, as part of a massive cleanup of the Walbrook neighborhood.
"These particular properties had been used by drug dealers hanging out on the porch to ply their trade," said Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "We tried to work with the owners for a long time, but were getting nowhere. We've got to begin to send the message that Baltimore is not a dumping ground."
The demolition initiative, announced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in early October, began with little fanfare. Mr. Henson briefed City Council members on the Walbrook demolitions yesterday while providing fresh details of the citywide program to restore or raze once-dignified rowhouses that now stand empty.
At a council budget hearing, Mr. Henson said he expects to tear down 250 houses over the next year, including entire blocks of empty, unsafe structures clustered along narrow alleys in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Neighborhood groups across the city already have identified 50 abandoned houses that they want demolished, he said.
In a tense exchange with Council President Mary Pat Clarke, however, another top housing official acknowledged there is no specific budget or master plan yet.
"What's the plan?" demanded Mrs. Clarke.
Deputy Housing Commissioner Harold Perry said, "That plan has not been worked through yet."
But Mr. Henson made clear that he is not setting forth without developing a strategy for each vacant house with community leaders.
He said he will draw funds from $1.5 million set aside for demolition and $1 million for stabilizing vacant houses. Public works crews will also participate in the program.
The city plans to recoup much of the demolition costs by placing liens on the properties.
In the past, the city has tried to acquire properties before razing them, Mr. Henson said. But the city solicitor recently approved the concept of demolishing privately owned, abandoned homes before putting a lien on the property.
In October, Mayor Schmoke declared that he was fed up with absentee landlords allowing properties to languish until they became too costly to repair. He issued an ultimatum to landlords: Either fix up the houses or the city will tear them down.
The target of the program, never tried before on a citywide scale in Baltimore, is the inventory of vacant homes that has increased from 5,500 to 7,900 in the past six years.
Mr. Henson plans to stiffen fines and step up prosecution of absentee landlords who abandon properties. At the same time, he asked communities to draw up lists of blighted homes that should be razed.
In Walbrook, residents applauded the demolition of the three houses and said they would prefer vacant lots that could be turned into small gardens. New Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Poplar Grove Street plans to take over the city-owned property, Mr. Henson said.
More than 250 city workers and volunteers converged on Walbrook, Rosedale and other west side communities yesterday to restore a little shine after a recent high-profile police raid. The cleanup crews swept up 109 tons of debris, towed away 15 abandoned cars, cleaned 10 lots and patched close to 100 potholes in the 74-square-block area.
Several hundred city police officers arrested 50 people and seized firearms, cash and drugs in a Nov. 19 raid of the neighborhoods. Five more people were arrested yesterday.
The raids and cleanup missions were the latest in a string that began in March in an attempt to overcome the bad effects on neighborhoods brought on by violence and open drug dealing.