All Through the Blight

7 min read

The large map shows the city of Baltimore broken into block clusters, color-coded to designate variables such as home ownership and occupancy rates.

“What are all those red specks?” I ask Paul T. Graziano, the city’s Housing Commissioner and Executive Director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Specks spread like a rash that is most intense around downtown Baltimore.

“Abandoned buildings,” Graziano responds. “Baltimore has a high concentration in a significant number of neighborhoods thanks to 50 years of disinvestment and job and population loss. This has, among other things, disrupted the tax base, thereby limiting the resources the City can dedicate to neighborhood revitalization.” According to the city’s official count, at least 17,000 buildings are now abandoned and uninhabitable—more than one for every 40 people living in Baltimore.

Such abandonment pervades most of America’s older, formerly industrial cities; what is noteworthy in Baltimore, however, is the skill with which “strategic demolition” has been utilized to combat it.

Graziano has held his position since 2000, making him the longest-serving chief of housing in Baltimore history; before that, he served seven years as chief executive of the New York City Housing Authority. Noteworthy successes in addressing those red specks, he says, “have come from two broad types of projects: Strategically targeted Low Income Housing Tax Credit [LIHTC] projects upon land cleared and assembled through the Mayor’s “Vacants to Value” program that is also part of other neighborhood revitalization efforts which coordinate public and private investment; and secondly, large scale redevelopment involving sites ranging from a few dozen acres to over 100 acres of land.

“Vacants to Value” [V2V] began after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took office in 2010, and decided to address building abandonment in a comprehensive way. “Where others saw an intractable problem, I saw an opportunity to rebuild neighborhoods, improve the lives of residents and attract new homeowners and private investment,” she explains.

V2V has streamlined the process by which the city enforces codes and disposes of abandoned property; facilitated investment in areas of strength; increased homebuyer incentives; supported development and major redevelopment activity; and coordinated the provision of green, healthy and sustainable home and neighborhood improvements, such as community gardens.

To support this vision, Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan recently joined Baltimore’s mayor in announcing Project Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise (CORE) through which the Governor will provide $75 million over the next four years for demolition under the V2V program. “As I walked the streets of this city, people were repeatedly calling out and begging us to help do something about the blight that is all around them,” Hogan told reporters. “We have heard calls for action.”

Hogan, who has also committed hundreds of millions of dollars in additional resources to reinvestment in the City of Baltimore, is a Republican. His constructive working relation with Baltimore, which is dominated by Democrats, stands out during a nationwide era of partisan inaction and bickering, and has contributed to impressive numbers: Since its launch, Vacants to Value has filed receivership cases on nearly 1,800 privately-owned vacant buildings; helped initiate the sale of 1,365 properties, the rehabilitation of nearly 2,700 vacant properties, and the demolition of 1,737 dilapidated structures; assisted in the award of more than 500 homebuyer assistance grants; facilitated development parcels at key locations for multifamily rental housing, often utilizing LIHTCs; and empowered community groups to adopt more than 900 vacant lots and recently cleared land as community gardens, parks and other green space.

Downtown Tour

Graziano grabs his coat. “The best way to understand this is to see it,” he says. Jumping in his car, he drives through perhaps a dozen neighborhoods. He clearly knows the city well, often slowing down to marvel at a turret or re-use of old bricks, stopping to talk to people.

Why so many abandoned buildings?

“Baltimore has lost a third of its population since 1950, and has experienced significant disinvestment resulting in major concentrations of blight in areas throughout the city,” Graziano responds. “High concentration of abandonment in a significant number of inner city neighborhoods leads to a diminished tax base, thereby limiting the resources the City can dedicate to neighborhood revitalization. Other challenges include extremely high poverty rates, limited employment opportunities and an aging housing inventory.

“We can’t just leave the decaying buildings there, and to simply decimate them is not good either. From a broad policy perspective, demolition is not preferable to restoration. In fact, we consider demolition to be the last resort, not the first resort.”

He explains: “As we consider strategies to address large scale blight related to our whole block demolition program, we start by examining the percent of occupancy, the architectural and historical merit, overall structural condition and feasibility of rehabilitation from both an engineering and economic perspective. Only once it is determined that there is no reasonable alternative, do we do demolition.”

We drive along the Greenmount Avenue corridor, a major north-south gateway to downtown Baltimore. In the center of this corridor is what Graziano refers to as a “strategic target” in which the City has undertaken a coordinated strategy to address blight and create new housing opportunities. An approximately 15 block stretch commencing in the south at Johnston Square and extending through the Greenmount West and Barclay neighborhoods is home to six completed or under construction LIHTC projects which replace blight with hundreds of affordable units. “These investments together with targeted demolition and other public investments have attracted significant amounts of private capital for the renovation of a high percentage of long-term vacant structures in these neighborhoods to provide high quality for-sale housing as well as market-rate and affordable rental,” Graziano explains.

On many blocks, the ultimate measure of success is visible: houses that are adjacent to affordable housing, recently sold at full market rates.

Graziano emphasizes that such projects proceed only after years of discussion with citizens and community leaders. “Community” is the goal, and emerges house by house, family by family, block by block, and not from centralized planning. But always at the core of community development is real estate, primarily affordable housing—living confirmation of conclusions reached by a major recent study, “Investing in What Works” published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund.

In addition to community input and buy in, Graziano emphasizes that the state-city cooperation is essential every step of the way. “The State of Maryland is a critical partner through its housing finance agency, which provides a variety of resources for for-profit and not-for-profit developers. These programs include, but are not limited to: Low Income Housing Tax Credits (9%), Multifamily Bond Program (4%), Rental Housing Funds (RHF) that include the State’s Home Investment Partnership (HOME Funds) program and the Rental Housing Program (RHP). The State’s commitment to Baltimore is evidenced by its funding of the RAD program and the recent awards of 9% LIHTCs; and state programs—including Partnership Rental Housing Program (PRHP), Group Home Program and the Maryland Affordable Housing Trust Grant—to assist both nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing developers with supportive and/or transitional housing. The State also supports community development initiatives through a variety of grant and loan programs. Community revitalization funds are available for both planning and projects through the Community Legacy program, Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, Strategic Demolition and Smart Growth Impact Funds, and Operating Assistance Grants. Additionally, the State supports small business development as part of its larger community development efforts through the Neighborhood Business Works program.”

Turning the Page

Darkness forces Graziano to end the tour he is giving me. As we say goodbye, he is returning to his office and I realize I’ve been seeing the Next Chapter in the history of great American cities, like Baltimore—adjusting to loss of jobs and population by unleashing market forces to stimulate community development. And add to all this vigorous public involvement and 21st century green goals.

That Graziano goes back to work makes sense. “Full implementation of Project CORE and the demolition of a total of 4,000 non-viable, blighted structures in our redevelopment areas will take at least another four years,” he told me. And all this involves the lives of very real people.