Going after derelicts

Reality: Announcing program for abandoned houses is easy

saving neighborhoods is much tougher.

January 30, 2002

BEHIND EACH of Baltimore's estimated 40,000 vacant houses lies a story. Perhaps the owner died and vandals moved in. Or a landlord got in over his head and simply gave up. Or a renovator ran out of money trying to redo a functionally obsolete house.

Other stories include tenants who vanished in the middle of the night, leaving doors open to ransackers. Then there are other, responsible tenants, who bailed out and could not be replaced because the neighborhood went to the dogs.

Though the estimated number of vacant houses has jumped five-fold in the past 12 years, City Hall still lacks an effective mechanism to deal with the problem or find a solution to it. Even worse, politicians have not regarded the vacant and abandoned house problem as a high priority. They get little prodding from civic organizations, which don't have any answers, either.

Mayor Martin O'Malley now promises to change that. He is asking private law firms and banks to volunteer to do the paperwork so the city can foreclose on 5,000 abandoned properties and acquire them. Meanwhile, the city has beefed up its own acquisition staff.

The mayor wants blocks north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus targeted for a particular push. That East Baltimore area is now a wasteland of crumbling, abandoned rowhouses that must be demolished if any redevelopment is to happen.

The mayor's idea is sound. He wants the city to assemble whole blocks of land on the theory that investors prefer sizable lots for redevelopment.

But redevelopment for what?

Baltimore has lost one-third of its population in the past 50 years. The exodus still continues, emptying out aging neighborhoods.

City Hall should look into alternatives other than building more housing units for an area that may have lost its attractiveness both to investors and residents. Instead, rezoning should be considered, so that more businesses and jobs could be brought to parts of the city where few exist today.

It's all about the economy. If people have money and faith in the city, they will invest in neighborhoods and improve houses. But new housing without jobs is not enough to save the neighborhoods.

Unless City Hall recognizes this fundamental truth, the number of vacant and abandoned houses will continue to climb.

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