Councilman seeks halt to housing demolition

Mitchell resolution seeks suspension of destruction of abandoned homes in city

September 29, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

With three months remaining to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's tenure, the Baltimore City Council is taking steps to halt one of his key housing initiatives and legacies: demolition of abandoned housing.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of West Baltimore has introduced a resolution -- unanimously supported by the 19-member council -- calling for the city to suspend demolition of abandoned homes because of rising complaints over the empty lots left behind.

Council members campaigning over the summer received complaints from numerous residents across the city who are seeing the vacant lots become weed-filled eyesores and trash dumps, Mitchell said. The city estimates that 40,000 abandoned houses remain in Baltimore with the intensity of the demolition effort scheduled to increase to 2,500 homes a year over the next three years.

"They're coming down really quickly, and there's no real plan for some of them," Mitchell said. "Neighborhood groups are asking what's happening to the vacant lots where former homes were sitting?"

Message to new mayor

The resolution isn't binding and does not force the city to abandon the demolition effort. But it will be the first message sent from the City Council to the new mayor.

Schmoke will step down on Dec. 7 after 12 years to join a Washington law firm. Yesterday, he acknowledged the frustrations over the growing number of vacant lots, yet cautioned his successor.

"The same communities that asked us to tear them down are now asking us to do something with these lots," Schmoke said. "Many of these houses are so deteriorated they will have to come down."

With the city population down by 300,000 residents since 1950, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III began knocking down vacant houses three years ago to reduce the housing stock to fit the size of its population.

The vacant houses harbor vagrants or drug addicts in addition to being eyesores. In the last three years, the city demolished about 2,500 homes. Henson has stepped up the demolition, which is expected to reach 2,500 homes a year by 2002.

Henson called halting the demolition a mistake.

"We have looked at the problem of substandard housing," he said. "I think unfortunately that when the next mayor or the next housing commissioner looks at the facts, they'll want [the demolition] to go faster."

Candidates favor planning

Democratic City Councilman Martin O'Malley will face Republican David F. Tufaro in the general election Nov. 2. Both mayoral candidates said yesterday they support Mitchell's call to halt the demolition.

"There should be a more rational planning process rather than knocking these houses down willy-nilly," O'Malley said. "I would like to see our demolition take in whole blocks instead of punching out the teeth of blocks."

Tufaro, a Roland Park housing developer, also opposes the citywide demolition.

"There is entirely too much demolition going on without having a long-range plan," he said. "You need to have a plan for what's going to replace it before you tear it down."

Schmoke and Henson agreed that they would like to see the remaining lots better used.When the program was introduced, Schmoke said, the city tried to get neighborhood groups, churches and adjacent homeowners to purchase and care for lots.

Henson has also urged the city to establish a "land bank" that would create an inventory of vacant lots that could be shown to developers hoping to build in the city.

Many of the property owners live outside the city and are unresponsive. Under a state law that will go into effect Friday, the city will be able to take the properties from delinquent owners.

Longtime critics of the city demolition program welcomed the council resolution.

"There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it," said Brendan Walsh, operator of the Viva House Soup Kitchen in West Baltimore. "Once [a vacant lot] is overgrown and somebody puts the first trash bag there, then you get the rats."

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