Demolition of a block of houses on North Stricker Street in Baltimore begins in January 2016. The city plans to step up efforts to raze blighted buildings. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The number of vacant houses in Baltimore has remained stubbornly flat for a decade — almost 17,000 abandoned buildings blighting the city’s streets. And for every one knocked down or fixed up, a new one appears somewhere else.

But city Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman says his team is finally in a position to drive the number down and has pledged to demolish more than 2,000 vacant buildings by summer 2020. It’s a $50 million project that is projected to bring the city’s total number of abandoned buildings below 15,000 for the first time in a decade and a half.

“We expect to see the most dramatic push in the demolition of vacant and abandoned property, really, in history of the past several decades,” Braverman said.

“We do expect to get to record low levels of vacant and abandoned buildings in the city as a result of these extraordinary sustained efforts,” he added.

Housing officials have made big promises before — pledging to tear down thousands of the vacant buildings that attract crime and drive down property values — only to fail to deliver. In 2013, city leaders said they were quadrupling their spending on demolitions. The number of vacants kept rising. In January 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced a huge infusion of state funding for demolitions. Data the city Department of Housing and Community Development compiled at the Baltimore Sun’s request shows that the number of vacants dipped, then climbed. On Jan. 1, the city counted 16,962 vacant houses, barely any change from the 17,006 on Jan. 1, 2010.

Braverman said it will be different this time. About $20 million is set aside in the city’s budget, and $30 million is coming from the state. And he said his team has been identifying properties since Hogan’s 2016 announcement and preparing hundreds of them for demolition.

Braverman shared a list of 1,806 properties scheduled for demolition by June 30, 2020, with details about where his department is in the process. Eighty percent are in just 16 neighborhoods, mostly in East and West Baltimore. Broadway East is projected to see 271 vacants come down; Sandtown-Winchester, 199; and Harlem Park, 143.

“There’s an address associated with every one of those numbers,” Braverman said. “I’m not talking to you about what we think we’re going to do or what addresses we’re going to identify in the future. I am showing you information based on properties that have already been selected and for which the demolition process has already been committed.”

In addition, officials also expect to conduct 250 or so emergency demolitions on properties that pose a danger to the public.

Political and community leaders in the targeted areas say they’re optimistic progress can be made on a problem that has bedeviled Baltimore for years.

Mark Washington, director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp., has been disappointed with the pace of change in the past. The neighborhood, home to 448 abandoned buildings, is projected to see 87 demolitions by next year.

“This is going to sound weird, but I do have faith that the city will be able to handle its blight elimination objectives,” Washington said. “The city of Baltimore, which operates sometimes in fits and starts, seems to be progressively in motion to address the blight in the city.”

In Washington’s neighborhood, officials and the community are thinking about what comes after the demolitions. A package of land facing Clifton Park has been offered to developers to build on, and the projections call for more demolitions on neighboring blocks.

“I think we have a realistic plan in place,” Washington said. “We believe we’re an undiscovered gem.”

In recent years, the city housing department and state contractors managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority have knocked down about 500 vacant buildings annually. Developers fix up a few hundred others each year. But at the same time, new houses become vacant in about the same numbers, as people move or die.

While the citywide number has been stagnant, charts on huge pieces of paper on the wall of Braverman’s conference room show how some neighborhoods have seen a turnaround. A cluster of areas in East Baltimore have seen the number of vacants fall significantly since 2010. The new demolition push aims to expand that progress further east, into areas such as Broadway East, where there are 1,166 vacant buildings but big redevelopment plans.

Meanwhile, other areas have slipped behind, and even a dramatic acceleration of demolitions won’t help some of them. In Carrollton Ridge in Southwest Baltimore, the number of vacant buildings has climbed steadily. In 2010, there were 561. Now there are 780.

Derwin Hannah, a community leader and longtime resident, said the city doesn’t give the area the attention it needs.

“It’s ridiculous that we’re walking distance to downtown and there’s nothing going on down here,” he said.

Under the current plan, 62 properties in the neighborhood are slated for demolition. Hannah called that “not even a drop in the bucket.”

“It’s nothing, really,” he said.

Overall, the department is projecting it will double the annual number of demolitions in the current budget year, which ends in June, and in the following one.

Jason Hessler, a deputy housing commissioner, said that at its peak, the pace will mean dozens of active work sites across the city.

“You’re going to have buildings coming down every couple days,” Hessler said.

There could still be hiccups along the way. In January, a problem with gas lines at houses about to be demolished led BGE to ask that work be halted for a week. A spokeswoman for the utility said it has added more staff to help, but the problem set back more than 700 demolitions.

Removing gas lines is just one step in a labyrinthine process of getting houses ready for demolition, which involves dealing with owners and tenants and conducting legal and environmental reviews.

Housing officials had focused on assembling entire blocks to take down all at once. That’s the most cost-effective strategy because it eliminates the need to build walls to prop up surviving buildings.

But it’s a time-consuming approach. Entire blocks are rarely vacant. That means existing owners and tenants have to be moved out and occupied homes bought by the city before they can be torn down. The process can take years.

So, the housing department has opted in some cases to take down parts of blocks and return later to clear the remaining homes once they’re empty.

“There’s upside and downsides,” Braverman said. “It’s not a waste of money if you’re one of the people who have to live in the area.” Residents have to put up with crime the vacant buildings attract, as well as “the devaluation of your property, the quality of life issues, the damage, the fires.”

“You don’t want to be overly bean countery when it comes to what somebody’s neighborhood looks like,” Braverman said.

Jacqueline Cornish was part of a crowd that cheered as demolition started this week on a dozen homes in the 500 block of Baker Street in West Baltimore’s Druid Heights neighborhood.

An excavator ripped through the decorative cornices, arched windows, and bricks laid a century ago. The demolition of historic houses in a once-storied section of the city might bring despair for some, but Cornish, 74, said it is cause for celebration in her neighborhood. The long-
vacant houses being torn down are boarded up, missing roofs and windows. And they’re magnets for crime — from drug dealing to illegal dumping. On the site of the torn-down houses, new townhouses are to be built overlooking a new three-acre park and playground.

“It’s almost like the phoenix to me,” Cornish said. “It’s a rebirth.

“We don’t celebrate the coming down. We celebrate what will be coming up.”

— Baltimore Sun