Decay on the city's outer ring

Urban Chronicle

Aid: The new Neighborhood Conservation Program is designed to respond to signs of housing problems in stable middle-class communities.

January 24, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

WITH ITS single-family houses set along tree-lined streets, Ashburton is not the kind of neighborhood that comes to mind when you think of vacant and abandoned houses in Baltimore.

Neither are similar Northwest neighborhoods like Dorchester and Howard Park, or Lauraville and Waltherson in Northeast Baltimore.

But city housing officials have identified more than 300 such properties in these and about two dozen other "outer ring" neighborhoods near the city's perimeter, and said more may be added.

Now, with the help of a $75,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the city is poised to tackle the problem through a newly created Neighborhood Conservation Program designed to respond to early signs of fraying in generally stable middle- and upper-middle-class communities. The program is geared toward areas that fall between red-hot real estate markets like Roland Park that need little public help to thrive and distressed inner-city neighborhoods like Middle East that require huge public investments to rebuild.

"They require some attention to make sure they don't slip and head in the wrong direction," said city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "What we're trying to do is to see what we can do to intervene in small ways and have significant impact."

If all the identified abandoned properties in these outer-ring neighborhoods disappeared tomorrow, they would make barely a dent in the roster of thousands of vacant properties in the city. But left unattended, the fear is that abandonment could grow, leading to further deterioration.

The program is in some ways an extension of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Healthy Neighborhoods initiative that targets a half-dozen city neighborhoods. One of the Healthy Neighborhoods, Garwyn Oaks, is also on the list of communities under the Neighborhood Conservation Program.

But while Healthy Neighborhoods focuses mostly on closer-in rowhouse communities, such as Patterson Park and Belair-Edison, the Neighborhood Conservation Program is to concentrate on areas that are made up largely of single-family homes. Unlike many inner-city neighborhoods with block upon block of boarded rowhouses, these areas have a vacancy here, an abandoned property there in blocks of mostly well-kept homes.

The attention they will receive could range from enhanced code enforcement, to making use of existing rehabilitation-loan programs, to extricating properties that might be entangled in estate issues, Graziano said.

A full-time coordinator for the program is expected to be named shortly. An Abell grant is funding the position for a year.

"There never has been anybody with that responsibility," said Abell President Robert C. Embry Jr., a former city housing commissioner.

Embry said he envisions little if any city acquisition of troubled properties in the areas, which he said have a viable private real estate market. "The best thing is to get the owners to sell," he said.

Earl Matthews II, president of Dorchester Community Association, welcomes the initiative.

Matthews, a Dorchester resident for 40 years, said the neighborhood has many beautiful houses that have fallen into disrepair and have been abandoned, bringing blight and discouraging new residents.

"A few dollars in this neighborhood can go a long way," he said.

The list of outer-ring vacant houses contains 17 in Dorchester, including several on Belle Avenue.

A visit last week found one in the 4000 block that was once a subdivided three-story house, with boards on the door and the lower front window. "I've been here two years, and it's been sitting there the whole time I've been here," said Kelvin Gibbs, a guard at the city jail who lives next door. "It's probably a real nice house."

Another three-story detached house down the street also stands vacant and boarded; the words "Holy War" have been scribbled across its white-washed facade.

But a third, between the two, was undergoing a $5,000 makeover, according to a building permit posted on the front of the house.

In discussing the program, Graziano, mindful of potential criticism that the city is increasingly forsaking its neediest neighborhoods, stressed that the program would "not take resources away from other communities."

"We're not looking to undertake a massive program of acquisition," he said. "We're trying to coordinate things, to be a catalyst."

Indeed, Graziano said he sought foundation funding for what might seem a basic function of his department because "dollars are a little bit limited these days."

He said the program would likely be phased-in a couple of neighborhoods at a time. Reducing vacant houses in outer-ring neighborhoods is "very doable," he said.

Making progress would "send a strong message" to residents and potential residents, Graziano said, demonstrating that people are investing in housing and creating confidence in the communities.

"What we would like to do is create a sense that things are moving in the right direction," he said.

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