IT IS DOUBTFUL that anyone has ever counted every one of them, but there are about 40,000 vacant houses in Baltimore City out of a total housing stock of 304,000 units, according to housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.
Even more shocking is the fact that 11,242 of them are open to the elements, posing a tremendous fire hazard and nuisance problem to themselves and to neighboring structures. More than 95 percent of these houses are privately owned.
The city is now planning to go after these problem houses with new vigor. Beginning Monday, the number of prosecutors assigned to the city's housing department will increase from three to five.
"We are geared up to go," assures their chief, Denise Duval, who is pledging stepped-up prosecution of code violators.
Even with more resources, though, prosecutors are facing awesome odds. The problem has just gotten to be too overwhelming.
A full-time judge was assigned to handle the housing court backlog less than a year ago. Instead of decreasing, though, the number of cases has virtually doubled to 6,000. The hiring of additional prosecutors only promises to increase the overload in housing court -- even though many problem cases still are not brought to trial and resolved.
These were among the topics discussed Tuesday during a half-day forum city housing officials sponsored for community advocates dealing with vacant house issues.
"There is no silver bullet," Mr. Henson said. "But everybody needs to know the tools we have."
Although the high number of vacant houses suggests a sameness to the problem, the situation is more complicated than that.
Some of the vacant houses are in crime-ridden and deteriorating neighborhoods. The real estate market finds those houses undesirable. They will eventually come down, either through vandalism or demolition.
There are thousands of vacant houses, however, that are in perfectly good condition and are located in viable neighborhoods. In these cases, the vacancies tend to occur because their owner either has been institutionalized or has died. Unless those houses are salvaged, the stability of their surrounding neighborhoods will be threatened.
When boarded-up houses start cropping up on Eutaw Place, a grand boulevard that once was among Baltimore's best residential addresses, red flags ought to go up.
A boarded-up house is not a secured house; on the contrary, the boards merely serve as a convenient signal to vandals that no one is watching.
Pub Date: 12/11/97