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New data: Vacants up 43% over 10 years, doubled in many neighborhoods

April 26, 2013
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The release this week of Vital Signs 11, the annual compilation of relevant (and sometimes not) statistics in Baltimore’s neighborhoods/census tracts brought to CP’s mind a question: How are things looking, 10 years on?

The Vital Signs project has produced reports regularly through changes in leadership and address (it is now housed at the Alliance-Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore). But the reports generally present just a two or three year snapshot. The web site does about the same.

Since vacant houses are one of the best measures of a neighborhood’s health or lack thereof, we dug out Vital Signs II, which covered 2001-2002, and compared the statistics on vacants in it with those in Vital Signs 11, looking at 2010-2011.

The results are not pretty.

After a decade of Project 5000, an unprecedented housing boom (and bust) several new city and state programs to encourage home ownership and half a billion dollars spent (roughly $50 million a year) by the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, the percentage of city housing units that are vacant or abandoned has actually increased by 44 43 percent.

In 2001 the city-wide percentage of vacant housing units was 5.55. That equates to about 11,056 units, if the count of residential properties that year (199,207) was right. In 2011 the percentage vacant was 7.8. The Vital Signs report no longer reports the total number of residential properties in the city, but Open Baltimore has 15,928 vacants currently listed.  That would equate to about 204,200 residential properties, city-wide. [UPDATE/Correction: per Vital Signs' Seema Iyer (second comment, below): VS does still report the total number of residences. In 2011 it was 202,309 properties, of which 7.8% had a vacant house notice (about 15,780). This suggests the number of vacants has continued to increase during the first two years of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's Vacants To Value initiative. But it also means that, in the 10 years discussed in the post, the increase in vacants was just under 43 percent, not 44 percent. The headline and text were changed to reflect this.]

So, in 10 years of trying to decrease the number of vacant and abandoned properties, the city has increased the figure by 4,872 4724, which is roughly the amount by which the city’s housing stock has increased in the decade.

The increases are unevenly distributed. Many neighborhoods have seen their vacancy rates stay stable, or even fall. Highlandtown is a bright spot, going from about three percent vacant to about one percent over the decade. Pigtown has gone from about 9 to about 8 percent vacant. Many others stayed roughly steady as well.

But, as defined in the Vital Signs reports, twelve neighborhoods have seen their vacancy rates essentially double. Greenmount East had a 17 percent vacancy rate in 2001. In 2011 it was 34 percent. Greater Rosemont went from 8 to 15 percent. Upton/Druid Heights was under 19 percent in 2001; 34 percent in 2011. Southern Park Heights went from six percent to 17 percent. Southwest Baltimore went from under 14 to 25 percent vacant.

In 2001, the Pimlico/Arlington Hilltop area had a vacant/abandoned rate of 2.56 percent. In 2011, that figure is 13 percent. In other words, there are five times as many abandoned houses there now as during the first O’Malley administration.

Even areas that saw enormous attention paid and resources poured into them lost significant ground. Reservoir Hill/Penn North’s vacancy rate was 11.5 percent in 2001, 16.4 in 2011. Sandtown Winchester’s percentage of abandoned housing units stood at 19.42 percent in 2001—a figure bad enough to promote calls for action, which were duly taken (as in this $30 million-plus HUD Homeownership Zone demonstration grant). In 2011 the area’s housing was 32.6 percent vacant and/or abandoned.

If you believe claimed “project outcomes” associated with the many expensive rehabs done there, Sandtown is a “success.” Everyone’s a winner.

Too, if you look up SCOPE, P5K and other city projects on vacant housing on the internet, you tend to find earnest and self-congratulatory nonsense like this.  Back in 2004, in my first week at City Paper, the fraud at the core of Project 5000 landed on my desk in the form of an internal memo. Thinking it was a humorous look inside your typical big city bureaucracy, I wrote it up thusly–and promptly found myself at the center of a shit storm. There were angry letters and angrier phone calls to the editor—all from the main players in the system—and all protesting my attitude as well as my facts.

The lesson was unsubtle. O’Malley was, even then, thinking ahead to his run for the Oval Office and plotting to present himself as the data-driven wonk-hunk. Dissent would not be tolerated.

But even without O’Malley’s chiseled ambition, the culture of big city housing policy has a Lake Wobegon aspect that’s seldom acknowledged. It is a small world of big hopes and bigger money, so no one in the system finds it in their interest to honestly look at the data and figure out what works and what doesn’t. I have not yet seen even an admission of these programs’ failure, let alone a critical and rigorous assessment of the reasons for it.

In housing policy, everything always works. And yet nothing ever gets better.