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Confronting Vacant Homes In Baltimore

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Out of the 16,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, the city estimates 6,000 are worth renovating. Here, homes that have been renovated and wait for new tenants are interspersed with boarded up row houses.
Emily Friedman
Out of the 16,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, the city estimates 6,000 are worth renovating. Here, homes that have been renovated and wait for new tenants are interspersed with boarded up row houses.

It is no secret Baltimore has a housing problem. There are at least 16,000 abandoned homes within the City of Baltimore. They are homes which for most people are an undeniable symbol of blight and neglect.

In an effort to mitigate the problem, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled a program called Vacants to Value, which focuses on reducing the number of vacant homes. The program has received a lot of attention since its inception a year ago. Rawlings-Blake presented the program at the White House, and the city received an innovation award from the Council of Mayors, putting Vacants to Value on track to becoming a model for other cities to follow.

City strives to save vacant homes

"Most of what we do is take a house, take it down to four brick walls and rebuild it from the inside out," says with Jack BeVier, a partner at Dominion Group. BeVier and his partners renovate old row houses in Baltimore, and have about 400 Baltimore properties on their books right now. One of them is a place called East Broadway, located in the 1800 block of Rutland Ave. The five houses that sit in the lot are rundown and vacant.

"It's either an estate situation, and no one's around to take care of it, or a speculator bought it in 2005 when the housing market was hot for $20,000, and now it's worth $5,000," BeVier says, explaining the typical profile of an abandoned house in Baltimore.

Dominion Group has been acquiring properties on this block since 2002. They bought and revamped 10 abandoned homes, but there were five that seemed impossible to buy. BeVier says he tried contacting the owners, but received no response. "Without forcing the people who are doing nothing to do something, it's kind of hard to get anything done in the private sector without public sector assistance," he says.

That's where the Vacants to Value program comes in.

Program aims for communication

"None of us really knew, given the horrific real estate market, what to expect," says Paul Graziano, housing commissioner for the City of Baltimore and head of the Vacants to Value program. "We should not and will not renovate every vacant house and build a new house on every vacant lot. That's not realistic; that's not even desirable."

The city says out of the 16,000 vacant homes, only about 6,000 are worth saving. The rest of the 10,000 abandoned homes should be demolished. What Graziano wants is to work together with private developers to select areas that should be developed and areas that should be left alone. The lots would eventually be turned to green space. The whole point of the program is to help private investors and the city government communicate, he adds

"We found developers who were creative and had their own capital sources, and what they needed from the city was to support their efforts, or not get in the way of their efforts," he says.

The best way the city could support the developers is to use code enforcement, which means going after homeowners who haven't paid taxes or fines. Most cities think it's not worth the effort to go after the owners, since they probably won't respond, Graziano explains. And if they don't respond, the city becomes the owner of yet another property.

But if the city had someone to sell the property to, such as a private developer like Dominion Group, the whole system starts to make a lot more sense.

Process is slow, but successful

The city did a tax abatement -- basically forgiving the thousands of tax dollars the original owner never paid -- on the five abandoned homes in East Broadway, and Dominion Group picked up all five. BeVier says within 6 months, the vacant homes will be renovated and leased for $1000 a month.

"The entire block will be occupied," he says. "We'll have done all the properties." After they're done here, he says they'll continue working south toward the Johns Hopkins Hospital development. The idea is that in time, fully occupied neighborhoods will surround the downtown area.

"And that's how we think you're able to change neighborhoods," he says. "You pick a point, and keep moving the line."

The city has sold 135 properties in the program's first year, up from 100 in the year before. It's a slow process, but Graziano expects to sell somewhere between 200 to 400 properties to private developers next year. And the year after that, that number should be even higher.

[Music: "House of the Rising Sun" by The Ventures from Instrumental Music - Best World's Hits - Vol. 2]

Photos: Confronting vacant properties in Baltimore

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