Steel planks not strong enough Vacant houses: Baltimore needs to develop workable strategies to deal with 40,000 empty residences.

August 01, 1998

SPACE-AGE technology is coming to Baltimore's slums now that the city is starting to seal some of its worst abandoned properties with rented polycarbonate metal planks to deter both criminals and vandals.

The plan to rotate the security devices among the "top 10" most problematic abandoned properties is a stop-gap measure and a publicity stunt.

It shows how unsuccessful officials have been in coping with Baltimore's roughly 40,000 vacant houses. An estimated 11,000 of them are abandoned, vandalized and open to casual entry. Many of them are controlled by the city. Of the "top 10" problem properties, seven are owned by the city.

Since 1950, Baltimore's population has plummeted from 949,708 to roughly 675,000. A city that experienced a dire housing shortage during World War II now has a profusion of vacant and abandoned houses. The problem is so widespread that the Schmoke administration ought to begin seriously looking for a way to break the cycle that over time turns them into vandalized wrecks.

Many of the vacant houses are in limbo for similar reasons. Their mortgages were paid when the owner died, was institutionalized or moved away, leaving the property for an estate to settle or caretaker to look after. Because the vacant houses usually do not represent compelling monetary value, there's no urgency to act.

Meanwhile, the property deteriorates. The city tries to deal with problems by levying a lien. This often proves counterproductive, making it even more difficult for the parties to contemplate selling.

The whole lien system ought to be rethought. The current setup has caused paralysis, in which the city is not collecting on liens or getting problem properties sold.

The way tax delinquencies are handled also needs overhaul.

In theory, the city advertises defaulted properties for tax sale each year. But few properties actually change hands. Instead, a national group of speculators engage in bidding wars so they can collect 24 percent interest, when the most desirable properties are redeemed. Meanwhile, the city ends up as the creditor of slum houses. It is not able to collect back taxes. But neither does it want to take clear title to crumbling property.

The city's goal ought to be to make vacant and abandoned properties easily marketable so they can be returned to productive use. Until that is done, blight will breed more blight and space-age metal planks will remain symbols of City Hall's helplessness.

Pub Date: 8/1/98

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