Census figures on homeownership in the city are more of a mixed bag.
The number of owner-occupied units declined by nearly 5,000 in the last decade -- from 134,424 to 129,869. But the percentage of homeowners inched up -- from 48.6 to 50.3.
The latter figure is considerably below the national and state figure of 68 percent.
"It's in the right direction, but clearly we lag behind," says city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "That's something we're concerned about."
Lag though it might, the city homeownership rate is not out of line with the homeownership figures of other major cities, which historically have fewer homeowners than suburban and rural areas.
None of the cities among the 20 largest has a homeownership rate that matches the national average. Several cities that experienced substantial growth in population in the decade -- including New York, Chicago and Houston -- have a lower percentage of homeowners than Baltimore.
The figures on Baltimore's vacant houses tell a different tale.
The percentage of vacant dwellings in the city far exceeds that of any of the country's 20 most populous cities. Philadelphia and Detroit are the only other cities in the top 20 that have double-digit vacancy rates.
And Baltimore's percentage of vacant houses exceeds that of most cities outside the top 20 to which it is often compared.
For example, Washington has a vacant housing rate of 9.6 percent; Cleveland, 11.7 percent; and Pittsburgh, 12 percent.
One of the few major cities to have more vacant housing units than Baltimore is St. Louis, at 16.6 percent. That's not surprising, given that St. Louis is one of only three cities among the 243 with populations of more than 100,000 to have lost a greater percentage of its population in the 1990s than Baltimore. The others are Gary, Ind., and Hartford, Conn.
As Sandra J. Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, says: "The number of vacants is consistent with the overall story of the city."
It's also indicative of the fact that Baltimore, like most other cities that have lost population over several decades, has long lacked a comprehensive and effective policy for dealing with vacant properties.
An exception is Philadelphia. This spring, Mayor John F. Street -- who, like Baltimore's Martin O'Malley, is in his second year in office -- announced a $1.6 billion plan to reduce the backlog of vacant properties by two-thirds and build 16,000 housing units in a major effort at neighborhood revitalization.
In Baltimore, the housing department is completing what could be the first step to a more systematic approach toward vacant housing in the city: a building-by-building survey of vacant residential property.
"Are they unoccupied but available [for sale or rehabilitation]?" Graziano says. "Or are they unoccupied and essentially abandoned? The main point is we need to distinguish between normal vacancies that would occur in any housing market and vacancies which represent disinvestment."
The survey is necessary because the census data offer only a snapshot in time of housing units that no one is living in, without differentiating between an abandoned dwelling and one that might be empty but being marketed.
Some level of housing vacancies is regarded as desirable, providing opportunities for growth and keeping a lid on housing prices. Even the fastest growing and most stable of major cities -- San Francisco; Boston; Austin, Texas -- have vacancy rates of 4 percent to 5 percent.
And, as urban researchers Michael A. Pagano and Ann O'M. Bowman pointed out in December in a Brookings Institution report "Vacant Land in Cities: An Urban Resource," the census data do not measure vacant land (as opposed to dwellings) or abandoned commercial buildings.
In a survey done for the report, Baltimore had more abandoned buildings, residential and commercial, per 1,000 residents than any large city except Philadelphia.
"The reuse of land is critical to the economic growth and recovery of older areas," the authors concluded. "For any city to take advantage of this resource, its public and private decision-makers must first know how much vacant property exists within its borders, where it exists and the condition of its supply .... . Without a reliable data base containing information about derelict property throughout a city or a formal data collecting process, a systematic response to vacant land will prove elusive."
Vacant housing, homeownership rates
The following are the percentage of housing units that are vacant and the percentage of housing units occupied by homeowners for the 20 most populous cities in the country.
% pop. % % home-
2000 change Vacant owner-
pop. '90-'00 houses ship
New York 8,008,278 +9.4 5.6 30.2
Los Angeles 3,694,820 +6.4 4.7 38.6
Chicago 2,896,016 +4.0 7.9 43.8
Houston 1,953,631 +19.8 8.2 45.8
Philadelphia 1,517,550 - 4.3 10.9 59.3
Phoenix 1,321,045 +34.3 6.1 60.7
San Diego 1,223,400 +10.2 4.0 49.5
Dallas 1,188,580 +18.0 6.7 43.2
San Antonio 1,144,646 +22.3 6.4 58.1
Detroit 951,270 - 7.5 10.3 54.9
San Jose 894,943 +14.4 1.9 61.8
Indianapolis 781,870 +6.7 9.2 58.6
San Francisco 776,733 +7.3 4.9 35.0
Jacksonville 735,617 +15.8 7.9 63.2
Columbus 711,470 +12.4 7.8 49.1
Austin 656,562 +41.0 4.0 44.8
Baltimore 651,154 -11.5 14.1 50.3
Memphis 650,100 + 6.5 7.7 55.8
Milwaukee 596,974 - 5.0 6.8 45.3
Boston 589,141 +2.6 4.9 32.2
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau