In Baltimore, Hopes Of Turning Abandoned Properties Into Affordable Homes

Apr 26, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:10 pm

Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods have long struggled with a lack of decent housing and thousands of abandoned homes.

Things recently took a turn for the worse: Five vacant houses in the city collapsed in high winds several weeks ago, in one case killing a 69-year-old man who was sitting in his car.

The city needs to do more about decaying properties if it wants to revitalize neighborhoods like those where Freddie Gray grew up, says Marvin Cheatham, president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association in West Baltimore.

Gray's death — of a severe neck injury sustained in police custody over a year ago — led to riots in Baltimore and calls by protesters for more jobs, new housing and better schools to address extreme poverty in the area.

One of the rowhouses that collapsed recently was on a small block across from the elementary school that Gray once attended.

"This was actually a little walkway. This was clear," Cheatham says, pointing to a huge pile of debris. "Now, it's nothing but brick. Brick, wood, mortar, and some aluminum."

The debris is piled up between two other townhouses damaged by the collapse. By Cheatham's count, a total of 11 houses on the street are boarded up and abandoned.

"Right across from the school. That's what troubles us," Cheatham says. "We want to make certain the kids are uplifted. That they don't come out immediately and see blight. You know, it can't be too encouraging."

Cheatham notes that the city has at least 17,000 boarded up and uninhabitable houses. He says the fact that they're there sends a bad message to residents who are also dealing with poverty, unemployment and drugs.

Paul Graziano, Baltimore's housing commissioner, says he understands why residents are frustrated. But he adds that the abandoned properties "are the product of over 50 years of disinvestment and population loss, so it's not something that's going to turn around overnight or even in a year or two."

Graziano says the city has done a lot in recent years with its Vacants to Value program, tearing down or renovating more than 4,000 properties. And he says the effort got a big boost in January, when the city and state pledged another $94 million to raze even more properties.

Graziano says some of the cleared lots will become sites for new development, including more affordable housing.

Kathy Edin, a sociologist and poverty expert at Johns Hopkins University, credits the city for some innovative programs to encourage development. But for the most part, she says, they've benefited middle class homeowners, rather than addressed what ails the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"Almost the sense that you've been abandoned by society because your neighborhood feels so abandoned. That's not really changed," says Edin. "And not much has changed at all in terms of the supply of affordable housing. It's very much the status quo."

Gary Dittman, pastor of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in East Baltimore, is among those who'd like to change that. He's on the board of the Charm City Land Trust, a nonprofit that wants to turn vacant properties into affordable homes.

Dittman says one problem is that outside investors own a lot of property in the city.

"One woman that I talked to bought lots off eBay," he says.

The trust is trying to preserve the neighborhood for those who already live there. It plans to purchase abandoned homes, renovate them using local workers and sell them at affordable prices to low-income families.

It has already transformed 18 empty lots into a community green space, and just acquired its first abandoned house.

A coalition of groups called the Baltimore Housing Roundtable wants to expand the idea. It's calling for $40 million in bonds to create similar trusts to preserve affordable housing and create jobs.

Graziano, the housing commissioner, says the city is interested in the plan and is looking into how it might work.

Back in West Baltimore, Marvin Cheatham hopes he, too, can tap into some future funds. He'd like to renovate a street right around the corner from where Freddie Gray was arrested.

"Put a small food market here, senior center here, health clinic here. The things that we don't have, I think this whole block could do it," he says, pointing to a long row of abandoned homes.

Across the street is a weed-covered lot, where Cheatham would also like to build a playground. He says there's not much around here for kids to do.

On a recent weekday morning, the street was deserted, except for several young men clustered at the corner. Cheatham says they're gang members selling drugs.

"There's about 20 of them. All of 'em 30 and under. Some riding on bikes. The ones that ride on bikes are usually the ones holding the drugs," he says, adding that not much in this area has changed over the past year.

Police say they were trying to clamp down on similar drug trafficking when they arrested Freddie Gray.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Baltimore the other day, the wind blew. This would not be news in most places.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

But during that Baltimore storm, several vacant houses collapsed. One of them killed a man. It's a symptom of the condition of some Baltimore neighborhoods one year after unrest struck that city.

INSKEEP: The immediate cause was the death of a man who'd been arrested by police. Some blamed broader causes, like neglected neighborhoods. NPR's Pam Fessler asked if anything has changed.

MARVIN CHEATHAM: You see these two. So that makes it three - one, two, three already. And we haven't gotten halfway to the middle of the block yet.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Marvin Cheatham is counting the boarded-up homes on one small block in West Baltimore. There are 11 of them, all across the street from the elementary school Freddie Gray once attended.

CHEATHAM: Right across from the school - and that's what troubles us. We want to make certain the kids are uplifted, that they don't come out immediately and see blight. You know, it can't be too encouraging.

FESSLER: And Cheatham, who's president of the local Neighborhood Association, then shows me what he finds even more discouraging.

Oh, my goodness.

A huge pile of debris.

CHEATHAM: This was actually a little walkway. This was clear. Now, it's nothing but brick - brick, wood, mortar and some aluminum.

FESSLER: All that's left of 1 of 5 homes that collapsed in the city a few weeks ago in high winds. A few blocks away, a 69-year-old man sitting in his car was crushed to death by some of the falling debris. Activists like Cheatham say if the city wants to revitalize its poor neighborhoods, it has to do something about these decaying properties, all 17,000 of them.

PAUL GRAZIANO: They are the product of, you know, over 50 years of disinvestment and population loss. So it's not something that's going to turn around overnight or even in a year or two.

FESSLER: Paul Graziano is the city's housing commissioner. He understands why people are frustrated. But he says the city's doing what it can to tear down abandoned properties. And the effort just got a big boost when the city and state pledged another $94 million to do the job. Graziano says that will pave the way for a lot more revitalization.

GRAZIANO: What we have seen is that a lot of these blocks that we clear become future development parcels for affordable housing.

FESSLER: And Kathy (ph) Edin, a poverty expert at Johns Hopkins University, says the city has done a lot to attract new development. But so far at least, most has been aimed at the middle-class and not addressed what ails the city's poorest areas.

KATHRYN EDIN: Almost a sense that you've been abandoned by society because your neighborhood feels so abandoned. That's not really changed. And not much has changed at all in terms of the supply of affordable housing. It's very much the status quo.

GARY DITTMAN: Right here is the house.

FESSLER: Gary Dittman is among those who'd like to change that. He's pastor of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in East Baltimore. He's also with the Charm City Land Trust, a nonprofit that wants to turn vacant properties into affordable homes. He says a lot of property here is owned by outside investors.

DITTMAN: One woman that I talked to bought lots off eBay.

FESSLER: He says the trust is trying to preserve the neighborhood for those who already live here. It just acquired its first abandoned row house, much to the delight of the homeowner next-door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How many properties do you guys...

DITTMAN: This is the first one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: First one? Well, great. I'm glad it's this one. That one's been...

DITTMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Empty for quite some time.

DITTMAN: It's been a while.

FESSLER: The trust is also hiring local residents to renovate the homes because people here need jobs. A coalition of local groups is calling for $40 million in bonds to create similar programs, and housing Commissioner Graziano says the city's interested in the idea. Back in West Baltimore, Marvin Cheatham hopes he too can tap into some future funds. He'd like to industry renovate a street right around the corner from where Freddie Gray was arrested.

CHEATHAM: Put a small food market here, senior center here, health clinic here, the things that we don't have. I think this whole block could do it.

FESSLER: Right now, the block of abandoned homes is one long row of abandoned homes and a weed-covered lot where Cheatham wants to build a playground. On a sunny weekday morning, the street's deserted, except for several young men clustered at the corner. Cheatham says they're part of a gang selling drugs.

CHEATHAM: It's about 20 of them, all of them 30 and under, some riding on bikes. The ones that are riding on bikes are usually the ones that are holding the drugs.

FESSLER: He says in many ways, not much around here has changed. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.