From the front steps of his home on a quiet, inner-city street, Leonard Noel sees every small victory in Baltimore's campaign against vacant houses -- and every setback.
Neighbors keep up tidy brick rowhouses with wrought-iron railings that took the place of a trash-strewn lot across from him on Francis Street in the Penn-North neighborhood.
The alley no longer is dominated by seven empty, crumbling homes, which were torn down.
Yet the three houses on one side of his home are vacant. He keeps having to nail back the boards after drug addicts break in to shoot up or sleep. Behind his house is the alley, free of the empty derelict homes, but now a muddy dump. Another house in the next block became vacant a few months ago, and he says, "I'm ready to move."
It is the same on many other older streets across the city: signs of progress and new bits of decay as Baltimore tries to reverse the blight that becomes the cause, as well as the consequence, of neighborhood disintegration.
One of the most telling indicators of the difficult struggle is a demolition initiative begun a year ago by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
In the past year, for every abandoned, deteriorating building the city demolished, four were declared vacant.
Wrecking crews took down 291 buildings in 1995 -- more than double the number during previous years -- in the campaign promoted by the Schmoke administration to rid Baltimore of the most unsalvageable properties.
Some landlords also heeded the mayor's warning to fix their properties or the city would tear them down. And the city is seeking court injunctions to try to require three landlords to repair their substandard homes.
But despite modest gains, city officials also counted an additional 1,300 vacant houses in the past year. Today, the city's official inventory is 9,000 -- up from 7,700 last year, 6,974 in 1993 and 5,560 in 1987. The number of substandard and unoccupied homes is estimated to be three times higher, according to private studies.
The vacancy rate of about 4.5 percent of the estimated 198,039 buildings in the city is lower than in several other big U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Still, if the rate of abandonment continues unchecked, the city would have a hard time reducing the inventory of empty and shuttered homes that is testimony to a three-decade exodus of residents from Baltimore, some city leaders say.
"As soon as you get a handle on one set of vacant homes, there's another set," says City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who represents Penn-North and other west-side neighborhoods.
Her colleague from the east side, Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, agrees. "They're becoming vacant more quickly than we can deal with them. It is very alarming because a vacant house is like a cancer in a neighborhood. It spreads."
City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, while calling it "a very complex problem," is more optimistic about the campaign against the blighted buildings that dot communities from Highlandtown to Park Heights.
He attributes part of the statistical increase to more aggressive enforcement of the city's housing code by his inspectors.
Mr. Henson also predicts that the tide soon will turn in the older, depressed neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Hundreds of homes are to be torn down or renovated as part of two renewal projects designed to provide new housing, medical programs, job training and economic incentives in East Baltimore and Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore.
In Sandtown-Winchester, the city recently knocked down 40 tiny, rental homes on Leslie Street for a new housing venture. Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, a church-based nonprofit developer, plans to build 27 two-story rowhouses on the block and sell them to low-income families.
Allan Tibbels, the group's co-executive director, says goals are to provide opportunities for homeownership and reduce housing density.
The old homes "were done poorly, and they were at a point where they needed to come down," he says. The new ones will be larger, with three bedrooms, yards and modern conveniences.
Yet in Sandtown, many new homes bought by working families stand next to newly abandoned houses. Two years ago, there were about 600 vacant buildings; today, as a nonprofit partnership begins fixing them, there are 850.
Community leaders and housing experts offer contrasting assessments of the city's efforts on vacant houses.
Some say the city has yet to pull together a comprehensive program of demolition, renovation and construction to cope with the vacancies that are a result of population decline and job erosion.
Kevin Baynes, a resource coordinator for the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a network of nonprofit developers, says: "People talk about growth management, but in Baltimore, with the population loss, people need to think about a comprehensive shrinkage plan."