AP NEWS

Baltimore starts demolition of block in sea of vacant houses

March 13, 2019
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Work crews demolish a derelict block as Baltimore tries to reduce its sea of boarded-up properties, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Mayor Catherine Pugh says her administration is committed to eliminating abandoned houses to “pave the way for new investment and long-awaited revitalization.” She got in an excavator Wednesday to start the demolition in a blighted swath of West Baltimore. (AP Photo/David McFadden)

BALTIMORE (AP) — Crews in Baltimore started demolishing a blighted block of vacant homes Wednesday as the city ramps up efforts to reduce its thousands of boarded-up eyesores.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said her administration is committed to build from areas of strength to eliminate abandoned houses and “pave the way for new investment and long-awaited revitalization.” The city has had at least 16,000 uninhabitable homes for many years, and the mayor said she wants to shrink that number to 15,000.

Pugh got in a bright yellow excavator to start the demolition on a street in West Baltimore — just one of many long-abandoned blocks of the overwhelmingly African-American area where generational poverty and extreme inequity will take years, if not decades, of sustained attention to address.

“We owe it to residents to provide them neighborhoods and public spaces that support their quality of life, allowing them to raise families and enjoy the same opportunities of other areas of the city,” said Pugh, who took office in late 2016.

As a gaggle of city officials departed the area after demolition began, neighborhood resident Erick Dailey stood and watched heavy machinery claw away at a few abandoned row homes.

Dailey was partly glad to see the block’s eyesores — typically referred to as “vacants” in Baltimore — knocked down because they are havens for drug gangs and arsonists. But he had concerns about what would happen after the bulldozers leave. He wondered aloud why more abandoned structures weren’t being rehabilitated when locals like him could try making them livable again with some help.

“I’ve been trying to get my credit right so I can buy a couple of vacants. I would love to fix a couple up, rent them to veterans like myself. There’s more destitute people in this neighborhood than there are kids, so the last thing we need is more parks,” he said.

Other onlookers said they hoped Baltimore City Hall finally has a clear vision and firm plan for creating revitalization opportunities. The city has long struggled to boost its many depressed areas and has been knocking down abandoned properties for many years.

Maryland’s biggest city is hardly alone in dealing with issues of urban decay. But Baltimore’s numerous vacant lots and roughly 16,000 uninhabitable row homes with weeds growing out of boarded-up windows have proved especially intractable in poor and racially segregated areas. Baltimore’s population today is roughly 612,000 — about the same as 100 years ago and significantly less than its 950,000 figure in 1950.

Housing researchers say about 20,000 other city properties are currently unoccupied and pose a risk of becoming shells.

Under a plan announced by city and state officials in early 2016, thousands of vacant buildings are slated for demolition. The hope is for open space and state-subsidized financing to stimulate private investment in new homes, retail stores and other businesses to revive impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods. The yearslong Project CORE includes $75 million in state funding and much more in financing opportunities for private-sector development.

Other large-scale demolition efforts, including those in Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, have had mixed results.

Pugh said the future plan for the West Baltimore block where demolition started Wednesday is a multiphase homeownership project called Bakers View Townhomes that will include 87 “affordable” homes.

A city statement said the townhouse project has received $1.1 million in bond funds from the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development, among other funds. A local community development organization also received funds from Project CORE to stabilize vacant properties.

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Follow David McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd