Meeting tackles 'undercrowding' in city Experts say Baltimore must formulate plan for its surplus housing

November 23, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Give boarded and vacant houses to the homeless to live in. Demolish the empty houses and plant trees and flowers on the lots. Or maybe create urban villages in the demolished blocks, complete with shopping centers, transit stops and recreation centers.

Those were among the suggested solutions to problems caused by Baltimore's "undercrowding" -- a term, coined by a Yale professor for when housing units persistently exceed the

number of people seeking housing -- at a symposium yesterday sponsored by the Citizens Planning & Housing Association (CPHA).

Douglas Rae, the Yale professor, said simply building more housing on lots where houses have been razed is like "pouring gasoline on a fire."

Baltimore officials, Rae said, must also acknowledge that the city's population has shrunk during the past two to three decades. The city, he contends, must rebuild on a smaller scale.

"Baltimore has a much more advanced sense of its problem," Rae said. "Detroit is what Baltimore should not become," he said, referring to Detroit's block upon block of blighted and neglected areas.

The conference at William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore drew about 120 people, including housing and design professionals, community organizers and concerned residents.

The meeting was a follow-up to the "Baltimore's Vacant Housing: A New Look at the Issues and Opportunities" conference in April. At the time, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III discussed the department's demolition campaign while working with community groups to raze troublesome buildings without leaving blocks with gaps where rowhouses once stood -- known as the "gap-tooth effect."

During the past 30 years, about 350,000 people have left the city -- leaving more than 40,000 vacant or decaying properties. In the past few years, the city has razed hundreds of the homes and repaired many in a program that has had problems.

In April, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he would not approve plans to demolish houses unless a plan was in place for the land left behind -- such as for a garden or other housing.

In June, Schmoke temporarily halted demolition of midblock rowhouses after parts of two houses collapsed as wrecking crews worked on properties next door. The damaged houses had to be demolished, displacing several families.

Yesterday, people offered suggestions about what to do with vacant buildings or lots left when buildings are demolished.

Herbert A. Davis of Herbert Davis Associates realty group said any initiative must encompass the city, not just one blighted area. "If not, it's just shifting the problem from one community to another," he said.

Charles Swiden, director of the Environmental Crisis Center, a nonprofit organization that offers food and shelter for the homeless, said undercrowding could be reduced by giving many vacant structures to the homeless.

"Our social values have to change," Swiden said. "But I don't think it would be so bad if we gave some of those vacant buildings to the homeless."

An group for the homeless has proposed that people who enter buildings to restore them should not be prosecuted for trespassing. Those persons could later apply for homesteading assistance.

"It would help on two fronts: It would help ease undercrowding and help the homeless," Swiden said. In homesteading arrangements, occupants are sold real estate at a nominal price if they agree to repair the property.

Stuart Matz, a midtown Baltimore resident, acknowledged the city's smaller population, but said in seeking solutions to undercrowding, officials should keep the city infrastructure.

"You still must provide for the return of the people," Matz said. "The approach that people are never coming back is dead wrong."

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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