Community Development

What Baltimore Needs is a neighborhood-level community development strategy.

We live in a City with only two-thirds of the population we had half-a-century ago, but with much of the same infrastructure. There are square blocks of houses all over the City that are mostly vacant and abandoned; the recent foreclosure crisis has now also increased the inventory of vacants scattered throughout the City in otherwise strong neighborhoods, leaving us with about 16,000 houses all over the City that are currently vacant and abandoned.

While some of these will eventually be rehabbed by CDCs and other small developers, through the City’s “Vacants to Value” effort, no matter how much the economy turns around, Baltimore Housing’s own estimates are that about 10,000 of them will probably never attract the needed combination of financing, subsidy, and vision. Silo-based thinking has kept us focused on many of these vacants as “houses that need to be fixed”, sending us down the futile path of subsidy in places where it would be wasted, when we should be thinking of them as – literally – “lots of opportunity.”

Coordinated policy making tells us to demolish these blights. Where consistent with a community-based master plan, remaining residents on mostly-blighted blocks could even be relocated nearby, so that whole blocks can be cleared. While some of these cleared lots would become strategic development opportunities for housing, retail, office space, or a combination, most of them could be small and medium-sized green spaces: community gardens, small play areas, or just well-maintained grass lots. Thousands of small and medium-sized green spaces would have not only the environmental benefits of increasing the City’s storm water management capacity and tree canopy, but would also provide the economic benefit of increasing the value of the remaining nearby houses – which would now be park front property! – and by doing so, build our tax base.

Where to get the demolition funding from becomes the key question. The State has stepped up with a $70+ million commitment, over the next three years; it’s not close to everything we need, but it’s a start. Another source, long sought after but increasingly difficult to realize given the climate in Washington, would be substantial short-term increases in CDBG funding specifically for the purpose of demolishing vacants. A third possibility would be a process through which developers could buy stormwater management credits from the City, in lieu of building expensive and space-intensive management practices on-site. If this process could be designed to ensure that the funds would be dedicated to creating mid-neighborhood green spaces and not be abused in a way that was environmentally unsound, it would be a tremendous win-win for all involved.

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