Baltimore under the wrecking ball: I Demolition city: In the name of clearing blight, HCD is destroying neighborhoods.

April 12, 1997

THERE ARE those who argue the appropriate name for the city department with the initials HCD should be Housing and Community Destruction. As Sun reporters John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner explained in their three-part series, the agency's policy of demolishing thousands of derelict houses and slapping large liens on them in the name of stopping blight actually accelerates the destruction of many city neighborhoods.

Baltimore's abandoned and vacant properties -- as high as 40,000 addresses -- can be traced to two inescapable conditions. The city's aging housing stock is expensive to maintain, and owners don't have the economic incentives to keep up their properties. The Department of Housing and Community Development's approach makes matters worse.

One-quarter of the city's housing stock is at least 60 years old. Baltimore has thousands of houses in need of expensive fix-ups to remain habitable. For absentee landlords, repair costs far exceed the rental income these houses generate or even the value of the property itself. Some large landlords simply abandon blocks of houses, leaving the city to deal with the shells.

Many owner-occupants don't have sufficient income to pay for repairs. The low value of these houses makes it difficult for owners to get bank loans. Many don't have hazard insurance, either. When homes are damaged by fire or water, the families simply move out.

HCD used to respond by bricking up vacant homes or making structural repairs to preserve adjoining properties. Now it demolishes houses. Then HCD places a lien on the property -- with 24-percent annual interest. This must be paid before any sale to a new owner. The amount of the liens is frequently greater than the property's value, making these houses worthless. More abandonment ensues.

A triage strategy is needed. Blocks that are too far gone should be leveled; others should be saved. The federal government just announced a program to help owners of derelict houses in six cities, including Baltimore. In addition, HCD should revive clinics for homeowners and tenants to teach people how to care for their properties and locate money for repairs.

Current policies don't stop blight. They hasten the city's decline by creating hardships for families, forcing them into bankruptcy or even homelessness. Too many demolitions drain city coffers and reduce Baltimore's assessable tax base. The South Bronx, which was notorious for abandoned property, has recovered. Baltimore, with a more enlightened housing policy, can also pull itself out of this destructive cycle.

Tomorrow: Trading eyesore city houses for eyesore lots.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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