Carry the fight to city's blight

July 11, 2005|By Bishop Douglas Miles and The Rev. Marshall Prentice

BALTIMORE IS NOT alone in its severity of blighted neighborhoods.

Despite the revitalization of its downtown, Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of abandonment in the country - over 30,000 vacant houses and lots. Philadelphia Interfaith Action responded to this crisis in 2001 by calling for the largest effort ever to rebuild a declining American city. It worked with Mayor John Street and the City Council to develop a $295 million bond issue to fund the nation's first, large-scale blight removal and predevelopment program.

The initiative is a five-year program begun in 2003 to demolish 14,000 largely abandoned homes, renovate 2,500 buildings and clear 31,000 vacant lots. Large areas of abandoned housing have been cleared in seven neighborhoods and replaced with a mix of nearly 1,500 market-rate and affordable homes.

Over the last 14 years, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), along with Enterprise Homes, Baltimore City and the state, have built 767 affordable owner-occupied homes called Nehemiah Homes throughout the city. They not only create equity for hundreds of working families, decrease blight and significantly reduce crime, but generate $1.7 million in taxes.

This effort is not enough. Entire areas of Baltimore remain blighted with abandoned buildings, vacant lots and barely habitable housing, contributing to epidemic rates of poor health conditions and crime. We know, because our churches are located in some of the city's most devastated neighborhoods.

Baltimore simply does not have the financial resources to deal with this crisis. And the federal government has virtually eliminated funding for the redevelopment of middle- to lower-middle-income neighborhoods.

We believe what is being done in Philadelphia can be done here. That's why BUILD asked candidates running for office during the last city election to endorse a $50 million bond bill to pay for the demolition and acquisition of vacant properties and reassemble them into large tracts of land that could be redeveloped into thriving residential and commercial areas. Philadelphia proved it to be a formula that works.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, in front of hundreds of BUILD members at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Aug. 3, 2003 and at Memorial Baptist Church on Oct. 19, 2003, declared she not only supported this initiative but said that she would champion the necessary legislation to make it happen.

Two years later, the urgency is not to fulfill this campaign commitment to Baltimore's neighborhoods but to build a publicly financed, $305 million city-owned convention center hotel.

This hotel is so urgent that the Baltimore Development Corp. created a sophisticated multi-layered financing arrangement and fast-tracked the bidding process. It is so urgent that Ms. Dixon has bypassed the normal committee hearings and procedures.

If it is so important to Baltimore's future to push through the largest publicly financed project in the city's recent history, certainly the redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods warrants the same creativity, promise and flexibility.

First, it's not BUILD's role to plan the redevelopment of the city's, at best, forgotten and, at worst, ignored neighborhoods with a $50 million bond to demolish, acquire and reassemble blighted and vacant properties. It is the city's responsibility. BUILD's role is to call for large-scale efforts to rebuild.

Large tracts of cleared land will encourage both nonprofit and for-profit developers to help rebuild; piecemeal rebuilding does not stimulate that type of investment. While we appreciate the investment under way in some neighborhoods, no one would disagree that a great deal more needs to be done.

Second, we believe that once a public official makes a public commitment to the citizens of Baltimore who want to live in a safe and thriving city, the sense of urgency should be as great, if not greater, as the commitments made to build a convention center hotel.

Third, although the city cannot pay for the $50 million bond with sources like parking or hotel revenues, we know that the city can identify the necessary sources of funding if it uses the same creativity it did in financing the hotel.

We propose doing what our sister organization in Philadelphia did. While interest rates are low, take $3.5 million from the Department of Housing and Community Development's budget and dedicate it each year for the next 30 years to pay off the $50 million bond. In this way, instead of demolishing vacant properties piecemeal, Baltimore can attack the crisis on a large scale.

Finally, BUILD is not unequivocally opposed to the convention center hotel. But the redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods warrants the same sense of urgency as the hotel. We expect anyone who votes for a publicly financed, city-owned hotel to vote for a $50 million bond bill for neighborhoods.

Our vision for rebuilding Baltimore includes not only downtown but uptown. Our track record in Baltimore and our sister organization's success in Philadelphia give us hope.

Bishop Douglas Miles and The Rev. Marshall Prentice are co-chairs of BUILD.

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