In 2010, a group of Baltimore veterans were searching for ways to serve at home. As volunteers, they started clearing trash in parks across the city. Eventually, they realized that they could deepen their impact if they zeroed in on East Baltimore.

The group, now a community development organization called The 6th Branch, manages more than 20 acres of land across the Oliver, Broadway East, Johnston Square and Darley Park neighborhoods, said Scott Goldman, its executive director. With the community’s help, they built and manage two urban farms, provide landscaping services for several lots, and are adding a tree nursery to their repertoire. They’ve installed playgrounds, implemented neighborhood composting programs and erected a small outdoor performance stage. They engage hundreds of volunteers a year.

The 6th Branch didn’t pay for most of its land. The group adopted most of the parcels from the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program, which offers cost and tax-free incentives to residents, investors or community organizations to convert some of Baltimore’s enormous inventory of empty lots back into productive use.

“Without it, I don’t know if we would necessarily exist,” Goldman said of the program.

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The program is one of several ways the city has tried to tackle Baltimore’s vacant and abandoned land problem. Though arguably not as much of a nuisance as vacant properties, abandoned lots can attract dumping, rodent and animal infestations and blight.

As more buildings across the city are demolished, more vacant lots have surfaced; and areas with high levels of vacancy tend to have low levels of new construction, according to researchers at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance — Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.

City officials said the land adoption program has the potential to provide a low-cost incentive for community and neighborhood-led development while helping improve eyesores. But several people who have been involved with the initiative said improvements need to be made before it can be more successful.

While Goldman’s group has the workforce and resources to take over abandoned parcels, some groups may find it too expensive and difficult to maintain the properties and need guidance that the current program doesn’t offer. There are also constraints on how the lots can be used because city officials can reclaim the land with a 30-day notice and sell it to private owners or developers.

These and other complexities involved in lot adoption may at least partially explain the relatively low rate of vacant land uptake across the city. Only 207 of the more than 6,000 eligible parcels are licensed for “adoption,” city housing department spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said. Those on the eligible list can later be found unfeasible after a mandatory review by housing officials.

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Vacant lot maintenance has taken on new importance this year as officials debate how to solve the city’s vacant house crisis. After a devastating vacant house fire killed three firefighters in January, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott pledged $39 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to reducing the vacant and abandoned home inventory, and his office produced a sweeping list of long- and short-term proposals to remediate the crisis.

Researchers at institutions including Johns Hopkins have found several benefits that derive from urban landscaping projects on vacant lots, including positive social, economic and public health outcomes. City officials also said managing the lots and keeping them clean can help deter crime.

Interest in the Adopt-A-Lot program, which launched more than two decades ago, finally is growing, city officials said, likely as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and the new premium it placed on outdoor gathering sites.

But the Adopt-A-Lot program was absent from the mayor’s list of proposals.

Instead, the office highlighted the city’s Side Yard Program, which enables residents to purchase city-owned lots adjacent to their properties for $500, or non-adjacent lots for $1,000. The “pricing structure” of that program will be reviewed this fall, according to the memo.

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There are currently 1,100 available side yards, according to city data. Hawley said 10 or fewer side yards are adopted a year on average, and the number available has stayed relatively consistent over the last several years.

But even though Adopt-A-Lot was left off the list, city officials and others involved with the program say it represents one of the city’s more equitable and efficient tools for community building and eradication of blight.

“Quantity is not always the number we look at; productive sites are what we look for,” said Teresa Stephens, director of neighborhood development and outreach at the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. “It’s risen to a point where people take it seriously as a resource or a brag piece for their neighborhoods.”

Stephens said among the most notable vacant lot transformations are a chess park in Sandtown-Winchester, a horseshoe pit in Pigtown and many community gardens and urban farms. She said communities have occasionally found ways to make the lots permanent using financial sponsors or by pulling together donations.

Despite the Adopt-A-Lot program’s community focus — for-profit businesses, parking lots and buildings are not permitted on the adopted land, for example — Stephens acknowledged the initiative’s shortcomings.

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“Folks invest a lot of funds, and love, and commitment to the space, so when we receive applications or inquiries about [selling] them, that separation can be difficult,” she said. “It does take a lot: it’s like renovating a house. It takes a community committed to making that space happen.”

Like the city’s vacant housing stock, the city’s empty lot inventory is mostly privately owned, making thorough and complete grasp of the problem especially challenging, Stephens said.

More funding and focus also are needed, those familiar with the program said.

“Improving vacant lots without having more funds available for maintenance feels like a step has been skipped,” said Katie Lautar, executive director of Baltimore Green Space, a land trust which supports community-controlled lots. It has purchased 16 such spaces on groups’ behalf and helps maintain several others.

“The Adopt-A-Lot program has never been a priority for the city, it doesn’t seem,” Lautar added.

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For one, Lautar said, the city doesn’t have one person dedicated to solely managing the lots, spreading it across several officials’ desks. And the city’s website that lists the lots doesn’t include enough descriptive information, she said, such as which lots would be best for certain uses.

Others who have made use of the program said the city should do more to incentivize farming on abandoned land, especially with neighborhood farms and community gardens becoming more prolific over the last decade due to zoning changes that allow them in residential areas.

One farmer, Rich Kolm, said urban farms in Baltimore are playing several critical roles: They are community centers, educational hubs and fresh food producers in food-insecure neighborhoods.

Kolm has overseen three separate farms on adopted land in the city, and now he works as a contractor to those attempting to do the same. Though he commended the city’s low-cost water access service that accompanies lot adoption, he said people may not want to start a farm under the program if the land could be taken away.

“The whole idea of agriculture is that you’re building something,” said Kolm. “The only way to do it well is to make it permanent. But the city’s attitude is that urban agriculture might be a means of raising property values so much so that the agriculture gets kicked off the site.”

Smaller gardens and parks have been more successfully created out of city-owned lots.

Noah C. Smock, executive director of the Baltimore Community ToolBank, which assists neighborhoods and individuals with the work of overhauling and maintaining lots, said his organization typically serves about 100 partners a year that work the vacant land.

Many of the partners’ projects have gone on to succeed, Smock said, but he is most intrigued with anchor institutions such as the University of Maryland that have partnered with communities to share resources, ideas and expertise. One such project, he said, resulted in the planting of wildflowers on a vacant lot to help enrich the soil.

Smock would like to see more collaborations that could be done at scale.

“For every productively flipped lot, there might be two that come on the docket; no matter how many people are involved, you just can’t flip them that quick,” he said. “For any organization that can show that they have community benefit in mind, if city empowers that partner by staying away, that’s the best hope for revitalization at scale.”

Read more:

Baltimore’s biggest math problem: Why the city’s vacant housing crisis isn’t getting better

What Baltimore can learn from other cities that have tackled vacant properties