Mayor seeks control over 5,000 houses

Vacant properties would be targeted for redevelopment

Two-year initiative

O'Malley will ask for help from banks, lawyers and others

January 27, 2002|By Eric Siegel and Gady A. Epstein | Eric Siegel and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Saying that "we need to take a substantial bite out of blight" in Baltimore neighborhoods, Mayor Martin O'Malley is launching an initiative to take control of thousands of abandoned houses throughout the city within the next two years.

As many as 5,000 vacant properties will be targeted for acquisition through foreclosure or condemnation - more than 10 times the number of houses the city seized last year, and more than a third of the houses the city has identified as uninhabitable.

The acquisitions would include entire blocks, some of which would eventually be cleared and offered to private companies for residential and commercial redevelopment or designed as attractive open space.

Other properties would be offered to individuals and nonprofit organizations for rehabilitation.

The mayor considers the ambitious plan, to be outlined in his State of the City address tomorrow, an effort to transform acres of wasted space into property with value.

"Everybody is anxious to build a new Baltimore, but you can't do that if you don't have title for the land on which you need to build," O'Malley said in an interview Friday.

City officials say they are still identifying which properties they want to acquire. Several hundred will be in the area around the Johns Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore, where the city is planning a major redevelopment centered on a biotechnology park. Other properties will be in neighborhoods with substantial vacancies and areas where the city wants to protect existing public and private investments, officials say.

Officials are still trying to figure how to pay for the mayor's initiative but have made clear that they cannot do it without help from the private sector. Even though the city does not plan to purchase the abandoned properties, the cost of taking the titles to 5,000 houses could reach $5 million, excluding legal fees. Demolishing even a fraction of the houses would cost millions more.

The mere commitment, though, to such an aggressive housing initiative represents an important step in the evolution of the O'Malley administration, which has focused on crime and drug addiction. The mayor said Friday that those problems still need attention, but that the city also needs to physically reclaim its blighted neighborhoods to achieve the rebound he has talked about since his 1999 campaign.

Housing experts and some community leaders welcomed O'Malley's proposal to tackle one of the city's most vexing problems, though others questioned whether it was too ambitious.

"The notion of forging ahead on a bigger scale is to be absolutely applauded," said Sandra J. Newman, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies and an authority on housing issues. "The abandoned housing in the city - because of the amount of it - does present the city's image in a very negative light and results in very deleterious living conditions for the people living in those neighborhoods."

William Apgar, a senior scholar at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, agreed that a comprehensive effort is needed to deal with vacant houses. "Once you have land that's ready to go, you have a shot at building housing and getting people to come," he said.

Arlene Fisher, head of the Lafayette Square Community Association in West Baltimore, said she is not sure that O'Malley's program would work but said, "We've got to do something.

"We just can't leave things the way they are. We've got blocks and blocks of vacant houses. We've created havens for drug dealers and drug addicts. It's kind of scary," she said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon acknowledged that a broad initiative was needed but said that she has doubts about the Department of Housing and Community Development's ability to follow through. She said she has had growing frustrations with the agency over redevelopment issues.

"It's an awesome undertaking," Dixon said. "It's needed, but I guess the question is: Is this a realistic goal? And has [the mayor] made a realistic assessment of all the issues going on [in housing], and where's the money going to come from?"

O'Malley said he will ask for plenty of help: law firms to do much of the legal work relating to foreclosures and property condemnation; banks to finance development and rehabilitation; and private interests to claim the city's worst properties in some of the its most troubled neighborhoods.

Even with that help, though, O'Malley knows he is pushing his staff to go further and faster than the city has gone before, but he maintains that such an approach is necessary when contending with a problem as historically intractable as abandoned homes.

"In the past all we've had is a million excuses about why we couldn't do it," O'Malley said. "Rather than excuses, we've got to set some goals and challenge ourselves to turn these properties into redevelopment opportunities."

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