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Mayor Rawlings-Blake unveils aggressive push to reduce vacant properties

Mayor Rawlings-Blake unveils aggressive push to reduce vacant properties

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An aggressive push to make a dent in the rehabilitation of 16,000 vacant houses in Baltimore was unveiled Wednesday and includes a Web-based marketing strategy, faster closings for purchases and $900 fines for code violations by absentee owners.

The program, called “Vacants to Value,” was unveiled at City Hall following a vote by the city’s Board of Estimates to eliminate a mandatory pre-sale appraisal of city-owned blighted properties worth less than $20,000.

Julie Day, an administrator in the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, was appointed to deputy commissioner to oversee the effort.

“The simple truth is that urban blight in Baltimore is a problem of too much supply and not enough demand,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, adding that the city owns about 4,000 of the vacant dwellings and will work to “get its house in order” first as the program launches this week.

“Vacant houses are more than just an eyesore,” the mayor continued. “They pose a serious public safety and public health threat to our citizens. They depress the value of surrounding homes and they deplete already scarce city resources.”

Paul Graziano, the city’s housing commissioner, said there are about 30,000 vacant homes and lots identified throughout the city, based on vacancy notices issued by his department’s code enforcement division. Other estimates have placed the number as high as 40,000.

“We need to take on this issue in a holistic way, but also in a pragmatic way,” Graziano said. “We’re being realistic, not starry-eyed in what we can do in a short period of time.”

Graziano said the city has been overwhelmed by vacant properties for a variety of reasons over the past 50 years.

“The mass exportation of jobs, the suburbanizing of America … it’s a global thing,” he said. “We’ve been in this for five decades.”

He added that housing officials hope to reduce the number of vacancies by 1,000 dwellings in the first year. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is rehabbing 300 vacant homes, Graziano said.

The plan unveiled Wednesday includes $5,000 incentives for firefighters, teachers and police officers to purchase vacant city homes for rehab. In addition, there are other cash incentives eligible for potential homeowners toward settlement costs, including $200,000 in “live near your work” grants that include purchasing a now-blighted home and a $2,000 “Buying into Baltimore” grant for participating in a trolley tour of the city’s communities sponsored by Live Baltimore.

For the first time, the city’s housing agency has hired a marketing expert, Teresa Stephens, to direct a new website set to launch this month that will feature many of the city’s vacant and blighted homes available.

“It used to be we’d wait around and people would call if they were interested,” Day said. “This program is different because of the level of commitment the mayor has demonstrated here today. The internal changes in the department will make the difference.”

Day said another official, Tony Bedon, has been appointed director of land transactions, to help speed real estate purchases of the vacant homes to settlement, so they may be rehabbed and returned to the city tax rolls in a timely manner.

Rawlings-Blake said the city will target certain properties and form a land bank “for future use” and to create new urban green spaces.

The problem of vacancies in Baltimore has been a persistent problem for many mayors.

Under the administration of Kurt L. Schmoke, Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson attacked it by clearing and demolishing entire city blocks of vacant and blighted houses, rendering many communities with a saw-tooth look that exists today.

Graziano said some of those vacant lots will be included in the new program, too.

“And if a property is not viable, and there are no prospects for future rehabilitation, we will do our best to bring it down,” he added, of blight.

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