Baltimore Housing: Do your job!

At this time of year, I am often awakened by 4 a.m. to a symphony of chatting birds who dwell in the overgrown wilderness of city owned lots behind my rowhouse.

This heavily wooded area, left to nature by the city, is filled each morning with a warbling in a crescendo of sound that crests in seeming unison before dropping off.  The sound builds up and drops, over and again until it all fades by dawn.  The mixing parade of bird species creates a cacophony, a warring chorus dulling all other sound and perception.  During these fitful mornings, I listen and wonder what the ethos of Baltimore might be?

All over the city, we see signs that nature has returned through the blight in its abundance.  We have urban farms and gardens on land taken back from decay in even the roughest neighborhoods along with the tree high weeds in which my noisy, feathered neighbors congregate.  Nature has returned to areas the City government long ago left to disregard.

I was recently invited to a demolition of several condemned properties in my Harwood neighborhood by Peter Duvall of Greater Homewood, the umbrella non profit, which represents the area around John Hopkins University.  As well, I was asked to invite neighbors to attend as a show of support since the mayor was to be master of ceremonies at said demolition.

Not surprisingly, none of my neighbors had interest in attending such a fete.  Most gave me a perturbed, questioning stare.  To us, attending slum clearance ceremonies went out with Ronald Reagan and Donald Schaeffer.  Duvall was alarmed at the lack of interest in witnessing the death of yet another structure in our neighborhood.

As if we did not understand the fruits of his labor.  We did and applaud him as we have done for years while pieces of Greenmount Avenue are taken down, leaving grasslands and no plan for investment where housing and business once stood.  Even so, the demolition commenced, with Baltimore Housing Commissioner, Paul Graziano, stating ‘the City is committed to making a major impact in this wonderful community’.

Baltimore City is slated to receive $10 million in demolition money from a nationwide settlement between banks and states over mortgage fraud cases.  This will allow the City to demolish some 700 properties at an average cost of $13,700 per property.  A good portion of this money will go toward the removal of unstable structures in and around Harwood thanks to the work of Greater Homewood.  Herein lies a problem.

Harwood is under a focus of something called ‘enhanced code enforcement’, a policy designed by Baltimore Housing to streamline its own internal policy to get owners of vacant and condemned properties to relinquish ownership.  Yes, it does sound and feel nearly like ‘double secret probation’.  Especially when the citizens of Harwood see little visible change in their neighborhood.  Still, we can thank Greater Homewood for their labor that the policy exists at all.

Duvall is a housing wonk.  He knows the architectural and monetary value of most every block within the Greater Homewood area.  For the last decade, he has been in battles with nuisance landlords, drug houses, prostitutes and the City itself to enforce housing code laws.  His mission is simple.  To create a viable housing market in North Central Baltimore so people will want to live here.  Yet, as he says it, what he does for Greater Homewood, a private corporation, is what the city should be doing for the public.

Peter Duvall, the housing wonk, at work in the neighborhood. (Photos by Robert Mara.)

That Housing attorneys have more than 20 Harwood cases in court is testament to the labor of Greater Homewood, Duvall, and a few citizens in Harwood.  Citizens yelled loud and often enough, endlessly recording the litany of illegal behavior for Housing officials to see.  While surely we are not the only neighborhood that attempted such detail, we are one of the few who have a Peter Duvall at our disposal.

What of the neighborhoods who don’t have someone like Peter?  What of Westport or McElderry Park or Druid Hill?  Moreover, what of the everyday, law abiding citizen who doesn’t have time to do such yeoman work.  Why must he or she do work that city inspectors should be doing as their job?  Citizens of Baltimore shouldn’t have to work this hard so their kids can play safely on the street.

We have an addiction problem.

We have a job problem.

We also have a planning problem at Baltimore Housing.

The plan seems to be that there is no plan at all. The City has offered various investor programs aimed at getting vacant houses renovated and rented or sold.  Still, Housing officials have spent little time to enforce the rules for   landlords or renters to create a stable environment for investment.  City leadership seems willing to work with big investors but not little ones who make the city better, house by house and block by block.  It’s as though each new mayoral administration spends more time tearing down the previous program than trying to start its own.

In Harwood, we have submitted more than fifty trash complaints for one property and still the illegal dumping continues.  Housing officials might find it economically prudent, for a city in debt, to find and cite the culprits after the tenth or fifteenth complaint rather than return to the same location, week after week, only to note that they have been there.

The mayor has stated her wish to have 10,000 more families move to Baltimore in the next decade.  Such a possibility hinges on whether Baltimore is on a path of sustainable growth or whether it will continue to wallow in indecision. It also remains to be seen if a city leader such as Graziano, who has held his post through three mayoralties and more than twelve years, will take steps in the rest of Baltimore as his agency has done in Harwood.  The demolition on Greenmount Avenue, which had its genesis years ago, seemed to happen overnight with little notice, as if on a whim by Baltimore Housing.

It’s been said that Harwood is Baltimore Housing’s jewel because the vacancy rate here has gone from 200 properties to 63 in the past six years.  Yet, ask any of my neighbors whether it has gotten safer in those years and none will say yes.

On mornings like these, I return to the ethos.  Baltimore is so close to doing the right thing.  Its good people are laying in wait for the time that its leaders don’t act overwhelmed but rather goes on the offensive we the problems we face. A first step is to raise the bar and enforce housing code laws citywide so investors and homeowners know where they stand.  Until the bar of expectation is raised first by City leadership, the citizens of Baltimore, who hold this city together, will endure and endure in mediocrity.