Baltimore Continues To Struggle With Thousands Of Vacant Homes


After the financial crisis of 2007–2008 that wrecked Baltimore’s real estate market, city officials counted 16,800 vacant buildings. In 2010, former-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake began the Vacants to Value program, where tens of millions of dollars from a legal settlement with wall street banks behind the financial crisis flowed towards gentrification programs.

The Baltimore Sun said Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who took office at the end of 2016, also expanded efforts to curb the vacancies around the city. In the last eight years, more than $80 million has been budgeted towards the efforts of demolishing vacant rowhomes.

In 2018, the official number of vacant buildings stood at 16,500. Tens of millions of dollars later, the program has only accounted for a mere -2 percent reduction in vacancies. The Baltimore Sun describes why the housing program failed to put a dent in vacancies:

“The city faces two principal obstacles to putting a dent in that number any time soon: the lengthy legal process it must follow to take control of buildings, and the rate at which people are leaving Baltimore — creating new vacants.”

Ian Duncan, a field reporter for The Baltimore Sun, interviewed Barbara Stokes who stood on the stoop at her rowhome of the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore. “They need to do something, because these vacants are creating a lot of problems,” the 79-year-old retiree said.

“Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, it’s vacant houses,” she said. “It looks like it’s more vacant houses in the city than occupied houses. It seems like it never changes.”

Seema Iyer, who is the director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore, said the city’s program to eliminate vacant buildings has been disappointing.

“People are really doing something, they’re working hard, but they keep slipping,” Iyer said. “It’s like building a levee that’s not high enough to stop the floodwater.”

So far, the city has demolished 2,700 vacant buildings since 2010 and rehabbed somewhere around 4,200. The Baltimore Sun points out that new vacant buildings are being created almost as fast, as residents are  leaving the city.

Iyer said, “the problem could be more widespread than city records indicate. The city counts properties on which inspectors have placed vacancy notices.” Iyer’s team of academics tracks the number of vacancies across the city, which she said the actual number could stand around 30,000. That is more than double what city officials are reporting, as there is a reason to believe — officials are underreporting the true nature of Baltimore’s housing collapse.

Mayor Pugh has frequently called removing vacant structures a top priority of her administration. In her recent State of the City address, she told community leaders that the city is on track to demolish more than 1,000 buildings this year.

“Because blight demoralizes communities, I have asked my Housing Department to tear down as many dilapidated properties as quickly as we can,” she said.  

However, like many promises, such as homicide reduction — the mayor has failed to deliver.

Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman’s research desk said the city saw vacancy rates decline from 2010 to 2016 in East Baltimore, though the overall rates remained well above average for the town.

Braverman said if the city had not initiated the housing program in 2010, the number of vacancies could be well over 20,000.

Last fall, Mayor Pugh sat down with lawmakers in Annapolis and outlined to state officials her objectives of tackling the vacancy problem. She told lawmakers that she had given Braverman a simple task: “Tear them [vacant rowhomes] down.”

According to The Baltimore Sun, the demolishing process is quite difficult:

“The housing department aims to tear down whole blocks at a time, the most efficient and cost-effective approach. But it creates challenges.

A city flow chart that sets out the process for demolishing a vacant block includes 69 potential steps. Only four involve the actual work of bringing down the building. The rest is a tangle of legal reviews, environmental preparations and negotiations with contractors.

The city typically completes about 300 demolitions a year. That number doubled last year, the housing department said, after the state provided millions in additional funding through its program, called Project CORE.

But an internal review found the increased pace pushed the city’s workers to their limits.

Officials are now looking for ways to streamline the process.

One big hurdle is occupied homes on blocks targeted for demolition.

In those cases, the housing department has to acquire the property and help relocate the residents. If the city and the owner can’t agree on a price, they can end up in court. “

To sum up, the situation in Baltimore is only going to get worse as the city continues to contract. It is likely that officials are under-reporting the true nature of vacancies across the town, which could stand around 30,000. Baltimore is a prime example of America’s shithole, as the city marches towards collapse.

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