Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday unveiled plans to knock down thousands of vacant buildings in Baltimore, replace them with parks and green space and offer incentives to developers who want to bring new projects there.
Hogan (R) announced the joint effort by the state and city governments on a blighted block in Sandtown-Winchester, the childhood home of Freddie Gray, whose death after suffering a severe spinal injury in police custody sparked riots this past spring and became part of a national debate about police treatment of young black men.
“Fixing what’s broken in Baltimore requires that we address the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings that are infecting entire neighborhoods,” said Hogan, who was joined by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) and other top officials. “They aren’t just unsightly, they are also unsafe, unhealthy and a hotbed for crime.”
But those who live in the neighborhood voiced skepticism about the promise of recreational spaces and future development projects. They welcomed the razing of long-abandoned buildings but said there is an urgent need for affordable homes to replace them.
“Parks? What about houses? We need homes back. You see all the people on the street,” said Brooks Brown, 58.
Officials estimate that there are 16,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, a former industrial hub whose population has shrunk by a third since the 1950s. Entire blocks are boarded up or falling apart, and homes are littered with signs advertising cheap sales and rehabilitation.
“More people would stay, but there’s no reason to stay when you are surrounded by despair,” said Monica Cooper, a lifelong Sandtown resident who moved closer to downtown five years ago.
Hogan’s plan calls for $75 million over the next four years to demolish vacant buildings and replace them with green space and parks, with the city pitching in an additional $19 million. The state will also make available $600 million in financing to encourage private developers to launch projects in the targeted Baltimore neighborhoods.
Officials estimate that 20 blocks of buildings will be demolished in the first year.
As if to ensure everyone understood the urgency, the news conference was followed by an excavator effortlessly ripping down a house from the second story as Hogan and other officials watched from across the block. A worker sprayed a hose at the site, keeping the dust cloud from growing past the sidewalk.
Brown said he has heard many promises from politicians and developers who say they will turn Sandtown around. The lack of progress, he said, makes him question whether those in power truly have the best interests of residents at heart. “They won’t do anything that helps us,” he said.
Paul Graziano, Baltimore’s housing commissioner, says green spaces will help create a better sense of community in the affected neighborhoods, give families a place to congregate and improve security.
Rawlings-Blake, who has criticized some of Hogan’s other efforts in Baltimore, said she welcomes his support in eliminating blight. The mayor said getting rid of vacant property has been a top goal of her administration. There have been 2,600 units rehabilitated in recent years and 2,000 demolished, she said. But additional funding was needed from the state to keep up that pace.
Experts say the stock of vacant property in Baltimore has remained high despite the city’s efforts because more owners are abandoning properties even as some abandoned buildings are eliminated.
There was a $130 million effort to transform Sandtown in the 1990s, which brought new homes and services. But new jobs and businesses failed to materialize.
“The challenge is to do something about the underlying issues, disinvestment and employment,” said John Kromer, a housing consultant and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied Baltimore.
The initiative announced Tuesday is Hogan’s latest effort to address poverty and other challenges in Baltimore.
He was accused of neglecting the city when he canceled the long-planned and costly Red Line light-rail project in June, saying it was not worth the money and would not be successful.
Hogan, a former commercial real estate broker from Anne Arundel County, later unveiled a $135 million plan to improve bus service, which Rawlings-Blake and others said was insufficient.
He has said he wants to include two Baltimore schools in a program that will launch six-year educational programs combining high school, work experience and community college. And he has announced programs to provide free books for young children in the city and summer jobs for teenagers.