Taking it to the bank

October 14, 2007

There aren't many U.S. cities with greater vacant housing problems than Baltimore's. Its glut ranks the city with Buffalo, Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland, according to the National Campaign for Vacant Properties - and the city's stock of rowhouses makes it worse because once vandals and neglect take their toll, there may not be much left to rehab. It's a bleak picture decades in the making, and piecemeal efforts to arrest the blight have had only marginal success.

Recognizing that failing, Mayor Sheila Dixon is proposing that one agency take control of the acquisition and disposal of city property with an eye toward streamlining the process and encouraging community development. The City Council and other officials should get behind the idea because it could significantly hasten redevelopment in some of Baltimore's most depressed neighborhoods. These properties have languished too long.

Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer number of abandoned properties - an estimated 30,000. But also part of the problem is the entrenched government system responsible for eliminating or redeveloping them. The city housing and real estate departments share the burden, but as many as five other agencies can be involved before a city-owned vacant property is slated for redevelopment.

The process is cumbersome, unresponsive to community needs and often counter to the city's interest. And a flagging housing market exacerbates the problems.

Since 2002, the city has been slowly acquiring rundown, vacant properties - 10,000, or a third of the estimated total in Baltimore.

The Dixon plan, which deserves rigorous debate at City Hall, would shift some responsibilities from the city's real estate department, revise the nettlesome tax sale foreclosure procedures and require changes in city and state laws. The proposal also envisions a full-fledged land bank that would operate independently of the city's powerful Board of Estimates, use proceeds of sales to finance its operations, and be overseen by a panel that would include community members.

It would not be unprecedented. In five years, a land bank in Flint, Mich., demolished 800 abandoned properties, built 90 affordable rental units and 80 owner-occupied houses, replanted vacant lots and redeveloped an old department store.

That's work Baltimore can surely replicate. Abandoned properties are dragging down neighborhoods, making streets less safe and costing the city tax revenue. The city landscape won't change overnight with the Dixon proposal, but expediting its renewal is overdue.

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