The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baltimore is furiously knocking down vacant houses — but barely keeps up as new ones go empty

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 5: A pile of rubble is all that's left after demolition finishes on the sole remaining row house on N. Bradford street on August, 05, 2016 in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 5: A pile of rubble is all that's left after demolition finishes on the sole remaining row house on N. Bradford street on August, 05, 2016 in Baltimore, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Despite demolition crews working at an unprecedented pace in recent months to tear down Baltimore’s vacant houses, the number of abandoned buildings in the city has barely budged. Even as long rows of empty houses are being razed, other homes are going vacant much faster than officials had expected — for reasons they’re at a loss to explain.

In February, city records listed 16,724 vacant buildings. Eight months later, the figure was 16,577.

Housing officials pledged in March to finally make progress on reducing the number of crumbling, boarded-up houses that blight the city. They provided the Baltimore Sun with detailed plans for the coming year and pinpointed buildings to be demolished. Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said that by summer 2020, the city would bring the tally below 15,000 for the first time in 15 years.

Today, that goal appears to be out of reach.

An analysis of city data shows overall numbers of vacant properties falling rapidly in areas targeted for demolition. But in other neighborhoods across the city the numbers have climbed, especially in six communities across southwest Baltimore and in a cluster of three areas in East Baltimore.

Braverman said his team fell slightly short of its demolition goal for the 2019 budget year that ended June 30, and watched as “significantly more” houses than it forecast became vacant.

“We’re seeing those accruals happening in places that we were not expecting a rate that high,” Braverman said — including in neighborhoods that aren’t among the city’s most distressed.

He said his team doesn’t know the cause. “I could only speculate,” Braverman said.

While Baltimore officials can’t explain the specifics, the forces that turn properties vacant in America’s aging cities are broadly understood. As population falls, there are simply too many houses and not enough people who want to live in them. The city lost 3 percent of its population, or more than 18,500 people, from 2010 to 2018, according to census estimates. That has left a population of 602,495.

Furthermore, vacant homes drag down property values, with weedy sidewalks, cracked stoops, boarded-up windows and trees growing through collapsing roofs. That puts nearby houses at greater risk of becoming the next ones to empty out.

The demolition of Baltimore

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress who studies housing, called it a vicious cycle.

“When you have more people moving out than moving in, that means by definition you have more supply of housing than demand for housing,” he said. “When you have that situation, and this is true whether we’re talking about Detroit or Baltimore or St. Louis . . . that supply is just going to sit there.”

The Baltimore records show rapid change in the landscape of vacant properties, even as the overall picture is one of stasis. From February to mid-October, 1,507 properties came off the vacant buildings list — either because they were demolished or rehabilitated. Meanwhile, housing inspectors declared another 1,360 legally vacant. Records also show more than 19,500 empty lots citywide. Almost every neighborhood in the city is affected.

Braverman said that were a person to imagine a map of vacant buildings projected like the stars on a planetarium ceiling, they would see lights blinking on and off all the time.

The data shows steady progress in a handful of neighborhoods that Braverman and his team have targeted, even as other communities see the total number of vacant properties lining their streets grow.

Broadway East, a square of land in East Baltimore bisected by North Gay Street, saw the most rapid change. By this fall, it had 124 fewer vacant properties than it did last winter.

In a six-block area abutting the Baltimore Cemetery, streets where rowhouses once stood showed buildings last month in almost every state of demolition. On some blocks, empty houses were being torn down by excavators. On others, all that remained were piles of bricks. On yet others, weeds were just beginning to sprout from newly vacant lots.

A block to the south on North Montford Avenue, Stephanie Phillips sat on a neighbor’s stoop and looked across the street. A demolition crew was knocking away five houses on her side of the block. Workers were cutting away the house next to Phillips’ home, so hers would stay intact. The work was noisy and shook the street, but Phillips said it would be done soon and she hoped the removal of the empty buildings would keep the rat population down.

“They’re finally tearing stuff down,” Phillips said. “We’re finally seeing change.”

She also has seen the arrival of new neighbors. Roberto Valle and Laura Adriazola said they each bought houses around the corner, on East Federal Street. They were renovating them and planned to move in soon.

In Central Park Heights in northwest Baltimore and Coldstream Homestead Montebello in northeast Baltimore, the city is awarding acres of vacant land to developers hoping to build houses, shops and businesses on streets that recently formed ghost towns. Last month, Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced a national real estate nonprofit organization as the developer of a 17-acre site in Park Heights.

Still, Young was hesitant to align himself completely with the demolition strategy developed under then-Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned in May.

“I’m taking a different approach,” he said. “I know some have to be demolished, but not all of them. Those that we can save and rehabilitate, that is what I want to do.”

Baltimore has more than 16,000 vacant houses. Why can’t the homeless move in?

In Broadway East, the model probably will be a bit different from Park Heights, with housing officials working together with neighborhood leaders to develop a plan that will lead to what Braverman called a “very intentional, equitable transformation.” He said that will include money to help an initial group of homes undergo rehabilitation and financial support to ensure current homeowners can stay.

Phillips noted she has lived in the Broadway East neighborhood for 40 years, buying her home from her landlord in the 1990s. She said she would never leave.

“That’s my house,” she said. “That’s my Beverly Hills.”

She said she expects to live with some vacant lots for a while and hopes the city will be able to keep them from becoming trash dumping grounds overgrown with weeds.

“As long as they can do that, we’ll be okay,” Phillips said.

— Baltimore Sun