Saturday, September 7, 2019

One way to have fewer vacant rowhouses

It is a heavy lift to fill the 24,000 or so vacant Baltimore rowhouses. At $200,000 a piece this would cost $4.8 billion, a figure that exceeds the entire Baltimore City capital and operating budget. In spite of all efforts of turning vacants to value and in spite of tearing thousands of those buildings down, the number of vacants has remained stubbornly stagnant. The reason is simple: For every demolition and for every rehab a new property became vacant.
Vacant homes: Demolition can't be the answers (SUN photo)

Staving off the pipeline of those buildings that were occupied one day and vacant the next seems to be an important and strategic measure. Like turning the gas off after a leaky gas line fuels a raging fire. For the strategy to work, one has to understand how buildings become vacant. Unlike for the status of structures, there isn't an abundance of data about the process that leads to vacancy. Studying how buildings become abandoned and vacant brings the entire complicated history of Baltimore into focus. Heer a few ways how it could happen:

  • The part about the decline of industry and the shrinking population is most frequently told. Once your city shrinks by a third of the population it makes sense that buildings would stand unused, even though Baltimore didn't lose nearly as many households as residents thanks to ever fewer people making up a household in modern times. 
  • The story gets more complicated when one considers the infamous "redlining". What do lending practices that date 60-80 years back have to do with today's vacants? It turns out: a lot. Take Eutaw Place where the same large opulent rowhouses on one side are worth half a million or more and on the other only $160,000, at times as little as $28,000? Bolton Hill wasn't redlined, but Marble Hill was, Bolton Hill is a largely white neighborhood, Marble Hill is majority black. The stark difference in home values is directly related to the risk of a house becoming vacant.  
  • Low cost run-down large rowhouses are sometimes run by "slumlords" who rent them out to several parties until the building falls apart and becomes uninhabitable. At that point a unscrupulous landlord may walk away with the profit and leave the building to rot. 
  • But there are much less nefarious ways how a low value building could end up vacant, no matter how beautiful its bones are. The landlord him or herself could be a low income homeowner who tried to supplement his own meager income with the rents of a cheaply acquired second home. 
  • Or a an elderly low income homeowner could have  fallen into ill health and moved to  a retirement home without anybody to take care of the home with the assessed value too low to attract much attention. Often the poor conditions of the homes the,selves are the cause of the poor health of owners and their children thanks to mold from leaky roofs or wet basements. Leaky windows, poorly insulated walls rack up high utility costs that the owner may not be able to pay until BGE turns off the power and the house becomes entirely uninhabitable. Lead paint poising young children may lead owners to leave unable to pay the cost of ridding the house of lead. 
  • Or a low income resident would have fallen prey to mortgage gauging and his home goes into foreclosure. Often the banks then rather let it sit than fix it up for sale. 
  • Or a resident without means to do the necessary repairs gets written up for a code violation and has no money to pay the fine, let alone rectify the violation. Either the fines add up to a lien and eventually taking or the building may be condemned for being unsafe. Once again, it would wind up standing empty.

New construction or rehab at $200,000 a piece can't be the answer
Someone may object that the homeownership rates in Baltimore's disinvested neighborhoods (which is often only half or less than the national average) are too low to really fuel a pipeline of vacants. It is hard to say, exactly how many vacants go on account of owners leaving or being pushed out due to one of the described causes, but it is certain that of the remaining homeowners quite a few live on the brink of disaster. Nor is there any question that a higher homeownership rate is a good way to stabilize a neighborhood.

There are a few programs out there to assist low income homeowners to keep their house in shape, but they are far too small to cover the huge needs. This is why the City of Baltimore is on the right track with the HUBS program to help to keep their house in shape. Problem is only, that HUBS is so popular that it ran out of funds very quickly.
The Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS) program serves residents of Baltimore. Social Workers based at six HUBS sites will provide application assistance to older adults to determine home improvements that will make their houses healthier and more secure.(HUBS website)
The Upton Community Planning Committee ("Upton Power") is HUBS with their new homeowner support program announced this Friday which is not age restricted. The program will support owners with between $5,000 to $15,000 for the most urgent repairs. The program just received its initial $100,000 seed money from Wells Fargo which is investing in Upton as part of the federal Community Reinvestment Act and possibly in a kind of  "reparations" mode to make up for the bank's role in the foreclosure crisis.

The Housing Committee of the Social Determinants of Health Task Force created by the MD legislature with a focus on health wants to tie the issue of vulnerable homeowners to health. Similar to the Healthy Rowhouse program in Philadelphia, the group imagines that relatively small incentive payments assisting needy homeowners to fix their homes will markedly help improve their health and safety.
Substandard housing conditions due to deferred maintenance are literally making the people who live in these rowhouses sick. Substandard conditions like mold, mildew, lead paint, and pests create and perpetuate health conditions like asthma and lead poisoning in our most vulnerable populations.
40% of asthma episodes are due to asthma triggers in the home, representing $5 billion lost annually in preventable medical costs. (Healthy Rowhouse, Philadelphia)
The group now discusses to link a house repair program not only to health but also to workforce development. The attempt of linking health, housing and job skills into one virtuous cycle is also an attempt to avoid the pitfall of scattered interventions that never add up to anything. The more comprehensive concept is still in its infancy and in search of legislative support. Funding is key, of course. The Healthy Rowhouse non-profit in Philadelphia is currently trying to build such a larger fund with the help of private investment funds.

Trying to stave off the steady flow of vacant houses is an strategic move, even if it is addressing only a small segment of the Baltimore housing problem: According to data from Baltimore's Neighborhood Indicators Alliance the biggest single predictor for the rise or fall of a neighborhood is to have more than 4% vacant homes. Especially in neighborhoods on the edge, a few houses not becoming vacant can make all the difference.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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