'Sun' reporters got the wrong end of the telescope No city has done more to get rid of substandard properties

April 14, 1997|By Daniel P. Henson III

THE DETERIORATION of Baltimore's housing stock is a phenomenon of over 30 years. In the last several years, we have tried to change policies -- sometimes promulgated decades ago -- to bring our corrective actions up to date. It is not an easy process, nor is it simplistic in either its causes or solutions.

We have a less-than-perfect system. But we are demolishing, revitalizing and building anew at an unprecedented rate. We are in the midst of absolutely dramatic changes in the way business has been done for decades: neighborhood service centers, for example, that bring together multiple city agencies for a single, coordinated approach to any given problem, and our proposed computerized one-stop shop for expedited permit processing.

I could cite other well-publicized changes, such as our growing array of tax-credit programs, our enormous strides in changing entire communities (and the city's skyline) through public-housing demolition and rebuilding, our diverse public-private Substandard Housing Task Force and -- yes-- our selective demolition program.

Many other sweeping new programs of the last few years give city residents better service, better government access and better home-ownership opportunities. The city has led the region for several years in home sales. I strongly anticipate that 1997 will show the trend continuing.

I would have hoped that the Sun articles of April 6, 7 and 8 would mentioned any of the above items in the first 20 paragraphs. Predictably, they did not.

Uniquely complex issue

During my tenure as housing commissioner, I have consistently described the problem of substandard and obsolete housing in Baltimore as one of the most uniquely perplexing and complex issues the city faces, and I have disputed the ''official'' number of vacant properties in the city. While I have been the city's biggest critic on this issue, I have also implemented many new efforts to address this systemic problem.

The establishment of neighborhood service centers to address day-to-day ''grime and quality of life'' issues in communities; the ongoing work (including legislative proposals) of the Substandard and Obsolete Housing Task Force (established last year) to recommend far-reaching solutions and the clarity I have tried to bring to the land-use planning process in our most distressed communities was overlooked in your articles.

In an op-ed piece in your paper, I argued that there is no silver bullet for this problem. Demolition must work hand-in-glove with aggressive and enlightened code enforcement; rehabilitation and stabilization of historic (we are a city proud of its architectural heritage) and noteworthy properties must be offset with new construction of modern housing products to maintain our tax base. And all this must work at the same time.

The task force, for example, has proposed a broad range of remedies, some of which require city or state legislation. Probably the most significant is a state bill, just passed, that would make it easier to place personal judgments (in lieu of, or in addition to, property liens) on property owners who fail to make TTC repairs. We were also able to get dedicated double the court time to housing and sanitation issues, and we plan to fully take advantage of the expanded docket by May by increasing the number of prosecutors.

Interestingly, my definition of ''selective demolition'' actually sounds and looks a lot like what The Sun terms ''strategic demolition.'' I believe that we have made a significant departure from the old way of doing things. In Sandtown Winchester and Historic East Baltimore, we are demolishing entire blocks where it fits in with the community's overall land-use plan.

Few totally vacant blocks

Fortunately and unfortunately, Baltimore has very few blocks that are 100 percent vacant, as do Newark, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Washington and Richmond, where I understand broad-scale demolition has been tried. In order to demolish on a larger scale, we have had to relocate people from substandard housing in every instance.

In regard to municipal liens, the Sun reporters got hold of the wrong end of the telescope. Let me explain:

Municipal liens result from abandonment; they do not cause abandonment. The owner who has walked away from his obligation to keep his property from deteriorating to the point that it damages adjoining property and blights the neighborhood and his obligation to comply with violation notices is the one whose property is subjected to city liens.

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