Reinventing Baltimore

Our view: The mayor's transition team report points to a web of intractable problems holding Baltimore back

reorganizing city government is just the start

March 24, 2010

Criticism, even of the constructive sort, is often unwelcome, but the charges of inefficiency and lack of direction at some city agencies contained in Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's transition team report are exactly what Baltimore needs to hear right now. Faced with a $120 million budget shortfall, Baltimore can't afford not to cut inefficient programs and agencies, while making every effort to save the ones that work. But the transition team's 230-page report suggests there is no simple or painless way to return efficient government and fiscal solvency to the city.

Granted, there are a few obvious fixes. The report cited a city-owned building that houses four government-sponsored programs, each of which uses a different cleaning service. Consolidating the custodial function in a single company clearly would save the city money, though officials would need to identity hundreds of such inefficiencies across the whole range of city government to make a dent in the deficit.

But many of the panel's other recommendations -- for example, its suggestion that the city develop a plan to address the city's huge inventory of vacant and abandoned houses -- simply underscore the magnitude of the difficulties Baltimore faces.

The vacant housing problem is actually the result of a complex web of intractable social and economic ills that long have threatened Baltimore's efforts at revitalization. The city's 30,000 vacant houses grew out of a decades-long decline in population, jobs and tax revenues, which themselves are reflections of the problems of crime, poor schools, disinvestment, trash, drug use and blight. The city's vast tracts of boarded-up, crumbling housing are at once a product of Baltimore's problems and a catalyst to make them worse.

In recent months, the city has considered but stepped back from two ideas to deal with vacant properties. One, championed by former Mayor Sheila Dixon, was to create a land bank authority to take possession of vacant houses and streamline the process for reselling them for redevelopment.

Another proposal, supported by Ms. Rawlings-Blake when she was City Council president, was to tax the owners of vacant city properties at a higher rate, with the goal of forcing absentee landlords to put their properties on the market so that developers could rehab them and fill them with new tenants. But this month the city told legislators in Annapolis who were considering the proposal that it might have the unintended consequence of hindering the very redevelopment it was trying to spark. Legitimate for-profit and nonprofit developers often hold on to vacant properties until they can put together the financing to complete a project, and in other cases they are delayed by circumstances beyond their control.

Ms. Dixon's land bank proposal was a generally good idea, provided it could be operated with more transparency than other quasi-public agencies, such as the Baltimore Development Corp. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has suggested trying to accomplish something similar within the purview of existing city agencies. But that won't solve the problem by itself. Making it easier to buy vacant properties doesn't help if no one wants to buy them, or if the economics of redevelopment don't work. Red tape shouldn't hinder redevelopment, but it's also not the only thing holding Baltimore back.

That's why the transition team report's comments about the lack of direction in Baltimore's housing and community development efforts need to be taken seriously. A mechanism like a land bank would only be effective if operated in conjunction with a well-thought-out array of efforts to reverse the conditions that led to so many abandoned properties in the first place.

That that hasn't happened yet is evident from the report's criticism of the city housing department, which it charged has been pursuing an "out of balance" focus on housing projects instead of community redevelopment. The panel suggested the department's mission be more sharply focused by removing from its purview programs like Head Start, which would seem a more natural fit for the education department. The report also said the department was slow to provide subsidies for redevelopment projects, a potentially crippling impediment to new construction given the tough economics of such work.

Concentrating on vacant property and the direction of the Housing Department won't do much to solve Baltimore's immediate fiscal crisis, but the city's long-term prosperity may depend on it. The transition team's recommendations are a good starting point. Now it's up to the mayor and the City Council to lay out a reorganization plan for city government that actually works for the people of Baltimore.

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