Rehabbing jobs must make sense Housing: Unfocused renovation projects result in failures and waste of taxpayers money.

December 16, 1997

THE OFFICIAL numbers still probably represent an undercount, but estimates of vacant houses in Baltimore City have shot up from 27,000 to 40,000 in just a few years. More than 11,000 of those houses have no windows or doors. They are open to vandals, drug pushers and scavengers, posing a safety and fire hazards to their neighborhoods.

Spearheaded by Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, the Schmoke administration has been trying to tackle the problem. It has demolished hundreds of houses and spent more than $300 million on scattered-site rehabilitations in the past four years.

The success of those costly efforts has been spotty. As Sun reporters Ronnie Greene and John O'Donnell documented in their two-part series Sunday and Monday, too many rehab projects involve unrealistically high budgets, questionable costs, delays, poor work by inexperienced developers and little supervision from the city.

Mr. Henson, in anticipation of The Sun's series, last week announced he would "completely revamp" the way the city's rehab contracts are approved. He pledged better screening and oversight of projects. "It means we're going to be saying 'no' more often in the future," he promised.

We will hold Mr. Henson to his promise.

In particular, he ought to see to it that often extravagant "soft costs" are better kept in check. In a review of budgets for about $25 million worth of projects, those vaguely defined ancillary costs -- from "construction analysis" to lawyers' and consultants' fees -- ate up nearly $5 million.

Better screening of contractors also is needed. Too many developers are novices without track records. Predictably, many of them fail, unable to cope with the demands of the job.

Perhaps the toughest challenge involves project selection. Too many of the rehabilitation efforts are speculative ventures in neighborhoods unlikely to make quick turnarounds. Even if the taxpayer-subsidized construction is completed, finding qualified tenants is difficult. If houses are left unoccupied, they are soon ransacked.

The city could learn from private landlords. Instead of "gut rehabs," they save money by doing cost-effective partial renovations.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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