Barbara Stokes stood on the stoop of her home at the edge of the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore and surveyed the line of rowhouses across the street.
Every one of them was vacant. But that’s not the worst of it.
In January, police found the body of a 41-year-old man in one of the houses, dead from an overdose. A week earlier, a 30-year-old man was found dead outside another.
Stokes, who grew up in the neighborhood and has lived in her current home for four decades, said the houses are open for people to come and go.
“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.”
On that last count, Stokes is basically right.
Vacant buildings in Baltimore
In 2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis that wrecked the local housing market, officials counted 16,800 vacant buildings in Baltimore.
They decided to take action. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched the much-lauded Vacants to Value program, and the city put millions of dollars from a legal settlement with the banks behind the crisis toward demolishing entire blocks at a time. The state added millions more to bring down more blocks. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who took office at the end of 2016, has sought to expand that effort. More than $80 million has been budgeted.
The result? Eight years and tens of millions of dollars later, officials count 16,500 vacant buildings in the city.
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.
*Baltimore has spent eight years and tens of millions of dollars combatting vacant houses. But there are still at least 16,500 vacant properties in the city.
The city faces two principle 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. *
Seema Iyer, who oversees the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore, said the numbers show that the city’s approach is not up to the task.
“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.”
The city has demolished more than 2,700 vacant buildings since 2010, and rehabilitated another 4,200. But new ones are being created almost as fast, as people move out of the city or die and no one replaces them.
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 also tracks properties that do not receive mail service. She said the true number of unoccupied homes could be as high as 30,000.
The city’s efforts have not been felt evenly.
City records and data from UB’s Jacob France Institute, which measures city trends, show that the numbers of vacant homes in some neighborhoods have declined but have grown in others. In Stokes’ neighborhood, the proportion of vacant homes has dipped, but at 30 percent in 2016 it still had one of the highest rates in the city.
Iyer said the institute’s latest data, published this month, do offer the first hints that things might be changing. For the first time since the institute started tracking vacant properties in 2000, the vacancy rate in Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park fell from one year to the next. It now stands at 30 percent.
Pugh has repeatedly called removing vacant buildings a priority. She said in her annual State of the City address last month that the city was on course to demolish 1,000 buildings this year.
“Because blight demoralizes communities, I’ve asked my Housing Department to tear down as many dilapidated properties as quickly as we can,” she said.
Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman’s team says the city has had real success in some neighborhoods. Vacancy rates fell dramatically from 2010 to 2016 in a cluster of areas in East Baltimore, though the figures remained well above the city average.
Had the city not demolished any buildings, officials say, there would be at least 20,000 vacants today.
But they say they lack the resources to eliminate blight in Baltimore.
Braverman wouldn’t set a target for a reduction in vacants by the time Pugh’s first term ends in 2020. He said much would depend on the state of the housing market.
One challenge: deciding where to spend money. In some neighborhoods with lots of vacant housing, the prospects for redevelopment in the near future are dim. Officials have to decide whether tearing down vacants now is the right thing to do anyhow.
“We look to where there is both need and opportunity for transformational change – but we also look to where we can improve the quality of life or stabilize conditions in neighborhoods where transformational change may not be feasible, at least in the short term,” he said.
“Every neighborhood has strength to build upon, and we will continue to focus on immediate needs in all neighborhoods.”
Some developers and housing advocates are concerned that the city doesn’t have a clear plan for how to move forward.
Dan Ellis, the director of the nonprofit builder Neighborhood Housing Services, said a group has begun discussing a set of proposals to present to the city, and has arranged to meet with Braverman in coming weeks.
“We’re encouraged that the city wants to meet with us,” Ellis said. “We’re looking forward to working with them to identify solutions.”
Pugh has set out in broad terms what she’d like to see happen with vacant houses. She told lawmakers in Annapolis last fall that she had given Braverman a simple mission: “Tear them down.”
That turns out to be 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.
That’s what happened with the rowhouse at 2041 E. Biddle Street.
The 128-year-old 3-story house, owned by the local real estate development and management firm Skyline Properties, sat on a block targeted for demolition in February 2014.
Wayne Goddard, an attorney for Skyline, said the city was offering less than the outstanding mortgage on the property, so the firm refused.
The city tries to negotiate with property owners. Goddard said officials have begun to take a harder line in those talks.
“I was stunned the way they treated us on the Biddle Street project,” Goddard said. “They were extremely cavalier.”
Housing officials say their approach has not changed: They get two independent appraisals, and offer to pay the owner the greater of the two.
In April 2016, with the sides unable to reach a deal, the city moved to take the property by eminent domain. Skyline sought compensation for lost rent.
A circuit court judge set a trial date for January 2017. But the proceeding was delayed when one of the lawyers wasn’t available.
The case finally went before a jury the next month. The jurors accepted Skyline’s claims and awarded the company $105,200 — about $80,000 more than the city’s appraisers said the property was worth.
The property was still vacant on Oct. 7, when police found the body of a 27-year-old man inside the house. He had been stabbed to death. Demolition of the block finally began this year in the last week of February.
City housing officials are looking for ways to speed the court process. They are considering using a special eminent domain provision called “quick take.” And they’re planning to lobby the General Assembly next year to change Maryland’s eminent domain law to reduce the number of stages required to gain control of a property.
Underlying the bureaucratic problems is a simple but powerful factor: The city’s population continues to fall. In many neighborhoods, there is limited demand for housing.
Jack BeVier is a board member of a collective of small developers. He says demand is driven largely by good schools and low crime.
“I can go renovate a block in a bad neighborhood,” said BeVier, a partner at The Dominion Group. “That doesn’t mean anyone wants to live there.”
Where the market is not strong enough, developers say, the city could provide grants or low-interest loans to make projects viable.
Pugh secured additional funds from the state for demolition in the budget year that begins July 1. The program was scheduled to end next year, but at Pugh’s request the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow it to continue if the governor provides funding.
In Druid Heights, Stokes spoke of her neighborhood’s decline. Two houses next to hers have been declared vacant. When a pipe on the block burst during the cold weather this winter, water flowed through the empty houses and into hers.
“This is just a troubled neighborhood,” she said.
The city owns all 15 vacant houses opposite her home. Officials targeted the block for demolition in February 2014. They say the houses are ready to come down, but a buyer’s plans for the block have triggered federal rules and caused a holdup.
Stokes turns 80 next week. For a while, she didn’t believe she would live to see the houses come down. But now, she says, there’s a meeting scheduled for next month to discuss them.
Maybe, then, she will see them demolished.
“I just might,” she said.