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One veteran real estate expert thinks the impact of the April riots on the Baltimore housing market has been overstated. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Vacants to Value a qualified success at 5-year mark

As the Vacants to Value initiative approaches its fifth anniversary, the program that was touted at its outset as a bold new approach to addressing city-owned blight in Baltimore is now viewed as a useful, if not game-changing, tool to promote redevelopment.

Since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the initiative in the fall of 2010, the program has leveraged $107 million to demolish or rehabilitate more than 3,000 empty, blighted city-owned homes, according to city figures. But the program is limited by what it can achieve in making a dent in the city’s stockpile of roughly 16,000 vacant homes, because the city only owns a fraction of those properties.

Despite the program being constrained in what it can achieve, Rawlings-Blake said she’s proud of the program and that its recognized internationally as a model initiative addressing blight and generating revitalization.

“I think we have the perfect foundation to continue to address blight. We have the track record that says our efforts are working and [have] a strong pathway forward,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Vacants to Values uses a variety of methods to achieve goals such as streamlining the process for the disposition of city owned property, focusing demolishing in what it’s website described as “severely distressed areas” and seeking large scale redevelopment.

Despite successes, the program hasn’t resulted in the kind of improvements that would drastically alter the effect on a city hammered by its population plummeting from about 950,000 residents in 1950 to about 622,000 currently.

Sean Davis, chairman of the Urban Land Institute Baltimore, said the program has been a successful initiative, but the degree of its effectiveness has been handicapped by the fact it can only address vacant city-owned homes. He estimated the city owns about 20 percent of the vacant homes in the city.

“I think it’s been a successful program. I don’t think it’s been a wildly successful program,” Davis said.

Councilman Bill Henry, who has sponsored bills forcing the city to be more proactive about addressing vacant houses, said Vacants to Value was never really geared toward taking on wide spread blight. He said the program’s top priority has always been trying to identify the properties with value and turn it over to builders who could redevelop the properties without city subsidies.

“What you’ve got left is that you’ve got the city-owned properties that are never going to work from a redevelopment budget perspective, and that’s where the Housing Department has been. … they’ve been very aggressive in looking for demolition funds so that they can demolish of those as possible,” Henry said.

But for the mayor, who launched Vacants to Value, the program has already provided something that can’t be judged in the number of homes rehabbed or investment dollars leveraged.

“For me, being someone who grew up in Baltimore, (i’m) so exhausted with everyone saying Baltimore’s best days are behind us, I knew that if we could get this right, to get a program that worked for Baltimore, that we could restore hope to many of our neighborhoods who have felt ignored and abandoned,” she said.