One house at a time

Our view: The mayor's ideas are good, but there's no quick fix for Baltimore's glut of vacant and abandoned properties

November 05, 2010

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has come up with a commendable plan to reduce the number of vacant and abandoned houses in the city. An effort unveiled this week would streamline sales of about 4,000 vacant city-owned properties, stiffen code enforcement in healthy neighborhoods and those primed for revival and offer home buyers substantial incentives to invest in such communities.

That Ms. Rawlings-Blake has made the city's glut of empty, dilapidated dwellings an early focus of her administration shows she understands how blighted buildings threaten to choke the life out of Baltimore's urban renaissance. Yet her plan would still leave standing about 10,000 of the city's 16,000 vacant and abandoned houses, and that number would continue to grow over coming decades. Unless the city can find ways to demolish or rehabilitate more of these neighborhood eyesores, over time the big risks they pose to public health and safety will eventually overwhelm large swaths of the city.

The problem of vacant and dilapidated housing is rooted in policies going back a century or more, when Baltimore was still a major industrial and manufacturing center. At that time, the city's political and business establishment adopted a range of discriminatory laws and banking practices designed to enforce segregation in the city's housing market.

As former Sun reporter Antero Pietila documents in his new book, "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City," the main targets of those policies were Jews and African-Americans, who were shut out of the city's most desirable residential neighborhoods and forced into religious and racial ghettos on the eastern and western sides of the city. It's no coincidence that the process of ethnic succession in Baltimore has left just those areas of Baltimore most at risk to the blight of vacant and abandoned homes.

Segregation and discrimination, coupled with the loss of a third of the city's peak population in the 1950s as manufacturing jobs declined and white flight took hold, effectively caused housing values in the former ghettos to collapse over time — though fortunes were made in the 1960s and 1970s through such practices as blockbusting and red-lining. Those practices exploited the fear of integration by encouraging whites to sell their homes at below-market prices while forcing black home buyers to pay inflated prices with higher-interest loans in order to move into those same houses. The process of deliberately distorting the city's housing market to financially exploit racial fears reached its most recent culmination in the subprime mortgage crisis a few years ago and the wave of home foreclosures that followed.

Given this sad history, it's no wonder that the accumulated negative effects on once-thriving residential communities have been devastating, or that reversing the damage won't be accomplished overnight. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's plan can at best only succeed in mitigating the consequences in those areas of the city where market forces are still strong enough to spur some demand by potential home buyers. The city has identified about 5,000 vacant houses in relatively stable neighborhoods, and another 700 or so in areas primed for revival, that could benefit from $1.5 million in incentives it is offering to buyers who can fix them up to live in or to resell. But absent a massive infusion of federal, state or private dollars, the remaining 10,000 uninhabitable structures likely will remain in disrepair for the foreseeable future.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake deserves credit for at least facing up to the magnitude of this impending disaster, even though the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives makes it virtually impossible to imagine the federal government stepping in to shoulder part of the burden — and Maryland's cash-strapped, Democratically controlled state government is staring at a billion-dollar budget shortfall. In this fiscal climate there are no quick fixes for the city's vacant housing quandary, but given the limited range of options, the mayor's plan may be the best short-term strategy for coping with what has long been one of the city's most intractable problems.

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