Seeing hope in abandoned housing

URBAN CHRONICLE

Katrina: Rehabbing blighted homes could help hurricane victims and boost revitalization efforts.

September 08, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE — WITH APPROPRIATE federal assistance, there might be a role for cities such as Baltimore to play in housing New Orleans evacuees beyond offering temporary shelter in converted public facilities.

Baltimore -- like Philadelphia, Detroit and many other urban centers in the Rust Belt and Northeast -- has thousands of abandoned residences, the result of decades of depopulation.

New Orleans, along with other areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, has tens of thousands of displaced people, and nobody's saying if or when they'll be able to return to their homes.

Why not find a way to match the two?

The federal government seems to be moving in just that direction.

Late yesterday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would be joining with local city and county governments to identify properties that could be used to house displaced residents.

That follows the disaster assistance steps outlined by HUD last week. They included putting a moratorium on foreclosures of FHA-insured houses in federally designated disaster areas; identifying vacant private, low-income apartment units, public housing units and HUD-owned homes throughout the country; and providing emergency funding for local public housing authorities to help rehab damaged properties.

What's needed is an announcement of the availability of sufficient money to rehabilitate some of the vacant properties to house some of those who have lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding.

Homeownership grants or special disaster relief rental vouchers, similar to the current Section 8 program for the poor, could be provided to the victims to allow them to rent or buy newly renovated homes.

Some money could even be earmarked to provide construction work -- and a paycheck -- to some of the multitudes of Gulf Coast residents whose jobs have disappeared along with their homes.

Perhaps tax breaks could be offered to private owners to encourage them to donate their properties to the effort.

If the evacuees chose to return to New Orleans as housing there became available, the rehabbed properties would be part of the improved housing stock of the host cities.

Clearly, there's a strong sentiment to clean up and rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, despite a price tag for relief and recovery now estimated at $150 billion.

Just as clearly, that reconstruction could take months to begin -- and years to complete. That's way too much time for families to spend living, dormitory-style, in public arenas or in the basements or spare bedrooms of Good Samaritans.

And some residents have expressed a desire not to return.

To be sure, renovating vacant houses can't be done overnight. Most are nothing more than shells that have been empty for years. Still, some of them stand to be better off than some of the houses in New Orleans that have been immersed in contaminated water.

Baltimore has taken title to thousands of vacant properties through Project 5000. Efforts at revitalizing neighborhoods by renovating these properties are under way. If more money were available, the efforts could be accelerated or expanded.

Making some of the houses available to evacuees would help guarantee the success of revitalization efforts in such places as Poppleton and Barclay. It would also allow the city to use existing funds to open up new frontiers of redevelopment.

With more money, nonprofit groups with proven track records could be enlisted to step up their activities. Three that come to mind are the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.; Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, which is expanding from Pen Lucy into other neighborhoods; and the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which is turning vacant HUD-foreclosed homes into home ownership opportunities throughout Northeast and is managing a citywide Housing Authority rental program ordered under a court decree.

Of course, care would have to be taken to make sure the money was used effectively as well as expeditiously. Care would also have to be taken to guard against the over-concentration of poverty and to ensure that the housing needs of local residents were not shortchanged.

How many such housing units could be prepared quickly, and how much demand there would be, is an open question.

Even a few thousand, in Baltimore and elsewhere, could be a help to the evacuees -- and the cities.

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