The house at 1113 North Carrollton Ave. is like many you see traveling the veins of the city and moving away from the spine of Jones Falls, and it tells a story of Baltimore.

The two-story brick rowhouse in Sandtown-Winchester is a few blocks away from the Billie Holiday Statue on Pennsylvania Avenue, once a thriving entertainment district for African American people, dubbed the “Harlem of Baltimore.” Holiday and other luminaries performed across the street at the Royal theater before it was torn down in 1971.

The windows of the Carrollton rowhouse are filled in with concrete blocks. A sheet of oriented strand board covers the doorway, like on several other doorways on the same block, and on thousands more across the city. As of Nov. 30, 13,649 homes were officially vacant, according to the city’s count of vacant building notices.

It’s a widespread problem that this week got the attention of City Hall as a mayoral race gets underway.

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On Monday, Mayor Brandon Scott unveiled a plan to invest $300 million over the next 15 years to help purchase and redevelop Baltimore’s vacant and abandoned properties. The city, in partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee and the interfaith group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, plans to use the money to generate as much as $3 billion in financing.

The Carrollton rowhouse is one of the lucky ones. It was among 37 vacant or abandoned homes auctioned off the last week of November and the first week of December by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, or HABC. Three were in Sandtown-Winchester. Prior to the auction, the authority owned roughly 150 dwellings, some single-family homes and some multifamily dwellings.

Properties that go up for auction are “no longer viable for the HABC to maintain in its public housing inventory due to the cost required to renovate the properties as a result of many prior years of reduced funding from the federal government,” wrote Ingrid Antonio, spokeswoman and senior vice president for communications for the authority.

“We want individuals and families to re-invest in neighborhoods from the renovations of these properties to provide more housing opportunities in Baltimore,” Antonio said, drawing a line from one problem to another.

The lack of livable and affordable homes in Baltimore is a growing issue. In July, the housing authority announced it would open up its waitlist for its Low-Income Public Housing Program, which provides rental assistance to needy residents, for the first time in four years. There were already 9,000 or so people on the list, and the HABC decided to allow 13,000 more people to join that line.

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The first day, about 17,000 people applied. By the end of the two-week application period in August, almost 30,000 people had submitted applications. Rather than randomly select 13,000 as planned, the authority decided to accept everyone who applied, bringing the total number to about 39,000 in need of rental assistance. The HABC currently provides affordable housing for 23,000 Baltimoreans.

All three of the Sandtown-Winchester homes up for auction received more than the minimum bids required. The Carrollton house fetched the lowest final bid, $27,500, which the city counts as a win in its overall quest to reduce the number of vacant properties in the city.

“This is the lowest number of vacant properties we’ve had in decades,” said Alice Kennedy, Baltimore’s housing commissioner. “Historically, it hovered in the 16,000 range for decades. Since Mayor Scott took office [in 2020], we’ve had a 13.9 percent reduction in vacant properties.”

“We know the sense of urgency in reducing vacant properties,” Kennedy continued. “It impacts so many different aspects of the lives of our residents and the people that work here. It’s not just about the physical structure, it’s about the people who live next to the vacant property, the kids that walk by the vacant property. It affects both physical health and mental health, and crime reduction outcomes … it’s absolutely the key priority of the agency.”

A vacant house at 505 E 26th St.
A house at 505 E. 26th St. was among 37 vacant or abandoned homes auctioned the last week of November and the first week of December by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. (Hugo Kugiya/The Baltimore Banner)

The city owns far more vacant properties, about 950, than the housing authority does. The two entities have parallel interests when it comes to putting vacant homes into the hands of new owners, and the city supports HABC’s auction process.

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“The impact that we have in this work isn’t just about creating value in terms of the economics,” Kennedy said. “It’s actively redressing racist policies that have impacted generations in some ways unimaginable. The generational trauma that exists is real. This is about healing and helping to address that trauma.”

The usefulness of auctions is not yet proven. Moving one or a few homes into ownership and renovating them does not guarantee the transformation of a neighborhood. For one home to be saved, the whole block needs to be saved — this is the basis for what Kennedy and others refer to as a “whole block” strategy.

“It is the foundation of the city’s vacancy reduction strategy,” she said.

Purchasing and renovating one vacant home in a neighborhood beset with vacancies could merely continue the problem, said Amanda Phillips de Lucas, director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, a research unit of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.

“Concentration of vacancies really does matter,” she said. “It’s tricky.”

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Dan Ellis is the CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, a developer that subsidizes construction in needy communities. He has found that renovating a home in a neighborhood with a vacancy rate of 20 percent or less generally adds value to the neighborhood. When the vacancy rate drops below that, he said, “it’s important to fix more than one house at a time.”

Renovating an abandoned home runs the risk of either an appraisal gap, when renovation costs exceed the appraised market value of the home, or an affordability gap, when the intended buyer cannot afford the appraised market value of the renovated home, Ellis said. His organization fixes and sells homes at a loss, as a subsidy to the community — one way around the gap. Not all owners and developers can do that.

“We also don’t want to artificially deflate the market,” Ellis said, pointing out another risk of subsidizing home construction.

The market risks and the need to convert vacant and abandoned homes wholesale rather than piecemeal is the reason Ellis supports the creation of a “land bank,” something proposed by City Council member Odette Ramos in March. The proposed land bank would act as a quasi-governmental agency with broad powers to purchase and acquire property and facilitate financing to rehabilitate homes.

“If you created a land bank, you could assemble all the properties together in one place and put in an RFP [request for proposal] for 100 houses, not 12,” Ellis said. “The RFP would be aligned with the priorities of each neighborhood along with the neighborhood’s needs and desires.”

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A land bank would have some of the same powers as the city and serve similar functions, but the argument for the land bank is that it could do those things faster.

Whether block by block, or home by home, the renovation of homes can potentially have a ripple effect. That principle is in part what guides the work of the Neighborhood Design Center, an organization that helps neighborhoods design and build shared spaces. The NDC is currently rehabilitating the former Upton home of Parren Mitchell, the late former Baltimore congressman, who lived on Lafayette Square at the corner of Lafayette and Carrollton avenues.

“You have to have people willing to make a long-shot bet,” said Jennifer Goold, the executive director of the NDC, “not because it makes financial sense but because you want to bring a neighborhood like Upton back to its glory, because you see the lifestyle potential in a Baltimore rowhouse.”

While in better shape than nearby neighborhoods, Lafayette Square also has its share of vacant or abandoned homes. The Parren J. Mitchell House, built in 1855, is next to one.

“Every house we can find a new use for is good news for Baltimore,” Goold said. “We need people in the neighborhood to care about the future of the neighborhood. When you have a strong block with few vacancies, that’s a sign to the rest of the world that it’s possible to turn a block around. Part of that is financial, part of it is psychological. Those auctions could help with the psychological part.”

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times. 

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