Still a blight

September 10, 2007

When then-Mayor Martin O'Malley initiated an ambitious effort to take control of 5,000 vacant houses in Baltimore in 2002, the program was touted as a sweeping attack on blight and a targeted way to redevelop neighborhoods. The goal to acquire the properties within two years turned out to be unrealistic, and five years later the program hasn't entirely delivered on its promise.

Moreover, the city attempted to take on only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 vacant houses that pockmark Baltimore neighborhoods. Vacant houses remain one of the city's stubborn, intractable problems that confound even the most determined city official.

Back in January, newly sworn-in Mayor Sheila Dixon resurrected the idea of establishing a land bank to dispose of city-owned property faster. The proposal, little heard of since, should be at the center of a revamped system of dealing with vacant and tax-delinquent properties.

The city's experience with Project 5000 underscores the need for a more robust response to the problem.

What city officials realized soon after establishing Project 5000 was that gaining title to vacant or abandoned properties was as tough as past experience had shown - and redeveloping them was an even harder sell.

As part of Project 5000, the city acquired 6,721 properties - including slivers of land and overgrown lots - through tax sales, condemnation and purchase. More than half of the parcels - 3,621 - were vacant houses or buildings, according to city data. Since 2002, 1,228 properties have been sold, 288 have a contract for sale, 974 are committed to buyers and 986 parcels are consigned to a large redevelopment project such as the Johns Hopkins' biotech complex, according to Housing Department data.

The impetus for Project 5000 was to rid city neighborhoods of vacant rowhouses that were unappealing, a drain on a community and a draw for vagrants and criminals. But 3,158 properties acquired through the program, the majority with vacant buildings, remain in the city's hands.

They are in addition to another 3,000 city-owned houses, lots and properties that remain undeveloped, according to the Housing Department figures.

At the debut of Project 5000, then-City Council President Dixon raised doubts about its scope and the Housing Department's ability to follow through. Her concerns were well-founded.

As mayor, Ms. Dixon (or her successor) has an opportunity to address the program's shortcomings and learn from them. This is an area that should be of utmost concern to her because a city-owned vacant house is a blight just like any other.

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