When Mayor Brandon Scott was growing up, he and his brothers were responsible for cutting the grass in two yards — the one at the family’s Northwest Baltimore home and the one around the vacant house down the street.
If no one tamed the latter property’s weeds, Scott said his dad worried the whole block would look bad.
“That [problem] exists for so many people in the city of Baltimore,” the mayor said this week.
For years Baltimore neighborhoods have buckled under a crush of vacant houses, a burden Scott said is the legacy of racial redlining, white flight and disruptive transportation projects like the Highway to Nowhere. The city has made strides to reduce the number of vacant homes down to its official tally of more than 13,000 properties, but Scott said the pace isn’t moving fast enough.
His administration in recent days rolled out an historic agreement with community stakeholders and an $8 billion spending plan aimed at beating back the city’s surplus of vacant houses.
With continued fanfare Friday, officials announced the city is tripling its innovation team from four people to 12, tasking them with identifying the most effective remediation policies and practices for addressing vacant properties. Funding for the initiative will come from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ government innovation program, which sponsors teams of experts to work within local government to find data-driven, scalable strategies tackling big problems. The program aims to strengthen city governments’ capacity for problem-solving.
Baltimore already employs a four-person Bloomberg-funded team that has worked on a number of chronic issues since its creation in 2017 — from police officer recruitment to sanitation issues to public health initiatives during the pandemic. James Anderson, who leads the foundation’s government innovation program, said Baltimore has taken extraordinary advantage of the program and proven itself a good steward of the funding.
The announcement this week positions Baltimore as the first city in the country to receive two simultaneous innovation grants from the foundation. The award represents a $2.9 million investment through Nov. 30, 2024, with a potential for renewal.
The team will report to Faith Leach, the city’s chief administrative officer, and provide regular updates to the mayor on progress.
Terrance Smith, who led another Bloomberg innovation team in Mobile, Alabama, has been tapped to head the expanded team in Baltimore, which will also continue its work on police recruitment, another chronic problem for the city. He’s hoping the team will complete hiring by the end of January and start churning out recommendations later in the spring.
In Mobile, Smith directed a Bloomberg-sponsored project to reduce blight. He wants to know what Baltimore’s vacant blocks were like at their most vibrant — and how they came to be empty.
Smith and the innovation team will conduct outreach to residents and other people who are most deeply affected by vacant houses.
“What I learned in Mobile is you can build a great downtown, but the true indicator of whether your city is going to be great is what’s happening in the neighborhoods,” he said.
The team will embed with the Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development to study the problem up close before presenting recommendations to City Hall leaders. In the meantime, Smith is imploring city residents to participate in the process and share their experiences and struggles with the team.
“Innovation itself isn’t something that’s going to get done within the walls of City Hall,” he said.
This article may be updated.