A large crowd of clergy leaders, advocates and elected officials gathered in West Baltimore Thursday morning with a resounding message: Baltimore’s vacant housing crisis is too big for the city to handle on its own.

The group, convened by the community organization BUILD, called on local and state officials to make an unprecedented commitment to address housing vacancy by agreeing to create a special purpose entity by 2024 dedicated to this work. They’re seeking $2.5 billion in public funding to tackle the problem — from a combination of sources that could include funding from state, federal, city levels and more.

“We will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations,” said Rev. George Hopkins, BUILD clergy co-chair. “BUILD, Mayor Scott, our governor, our state officials, businesses, and foundations: Now is the time.”

He added they are working toward a future where “there’s no longer a fight with governors over Baltimore — we’ll fight for Baltimore.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Mayor Brandon Scott joined the advocates, marking a major — but tacit — ask of state leadership.

“If we don’t do this work now, somebody will be standing outside Greater Harvest Baptist Church 20 years from now talking about the same thing. We have to do that work now,” said Scott, flanked by a supporter who held a sign that said “BUILD AND MAYOR SCOTT AGREE.”

He said he is committed to working with BUILD to figure out the best way for the special purpose entity to exist. A spokesperson for Gov. Wes Moore did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The call for action was accompanied by the release of a report developed by the urban planning firm czb and sponsored by BUILD that estimates the true scale of the crisis to be far greater than official city estimates. There are 70,000 vacant properties, lots and nearby buildings at risk of becoming vacant that demand city attention, the report estimates — far more than the 15,000 properties currently characterized by the city as vacant. Addressing the problem will come with a whopping price tag of $7.5 billion, including the $2.5 billion in public capital, with the rest leveraged through private investment.

The advocates gathered outside nine rowhouses next to the church, eight of which are vacant, according to BUILD. A tree sprouted out of the roof of one of the abandoned, boarded-up homes. The church owns three of the properties and has been trying to purchase the rest for several years.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The call comes amid a renewed commitment by elected officials to address the vacant housing crisis. As a candidate, Moore pledged to bring more resources and financial commitments to addressing the vacancy crisis in Baltimore. But advocates say these promises ring hollow without the financing and capacity to back it up. And without state intervention, they argue, the city has nowhere near the resources required.

“Raising public and private capital at this scale requires buy-in and support from public officials, the bond market, foundations, and private investors,” according to the report.

Without this massive influx of cash, it argues, the city will be stuck tackling the problem like a game of whack-a-mole: demolishing one building as another one becomes vacant. And the price tag of the current approach is steep, too: A recent report by Johns Hopkins researchers estimated that vacancy costs the city $200 million a year in lost tax revenue and spending to maintain vacant buildings.

“Baltimore’s vacant property problem is not the mere equivalent of a series of vacant buildings that need to be addressed,” according to the report. “Instead, what the city has on its hand are dozens of long-distressed neighborhoods that are overwhelmed by poverty and disinvestment.”

“The disposition of any one building is but a component of a much wider set of work that must be undertaken,” it continues.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks outside of vacant homes on West Saratoga Street during a press conference hosted by BUILD on Feb. 16, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

At the news conference, clergy leaders emphasized the urgency as supporters chanted “now, now, now.”

Kevin Daniels of St. Martin Church of Christ said that the report provides a strategy to “end Baltimore’s plague of vacancies and abandoned homes ... without displacing families.”

“This money needs to be invested in Baltimore’s neighborhoods, in the communities that’s been divested for generations,” he said.

That broader work — which it terms a “Whole Block & Whole Area” approach — would require the city and allied entities to use a variety of legal tools to take control of all vacant or neglected properties and lots in an area; secure and stabilize the properties; and rehab them through both public and private investment.

The strategy would make use of — and expand — the city’s growing toolkit for acquiring vacant properties. It’s a new process authorized through a state law in 2019 called “judicial in rem foreclosure” that allows the city to obtain ownership of a vacant lot or building where the value of the property’s liens — unpaid property taxes, citations and water bills — exceeds the value of the property. A bill under consideration by state legislators would expand the tool beyond just these most distressed properties. And, Councilwoman Odette Ramos is set to introduce a bill later this winter that would create a land bank, which would use in rem to acquire properties, raise capital for rehabs and guide the properties into responsible use.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The strategy is distinct from existing strategies, like the Vacants to Value program, that incentivize developers and homeowners to invest in vacant properties one by one without significant public investment. Those strategies aren’t effective in neighborhoods with the weakest housing markets, where most of the city’s vacant properties are located, the report argues. It estimates that 85% of vacant properties are in neighborhoods where dramatic public intervention is necessary.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks outside of vacant homes on West Saratoga street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on February 16, 2023.
Mayor Brandon Scott speaks outside of vacant homes on West Saratoga Street during a press conference hosted by BUILD on Feb. 16, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Nneka N’namdi, the founder of Fight Blight Bmore, said that government officials know the root causes of vacancy and know what advocates want done — they just need to act. She added that BUILD’s vision would only work with adequate community input.

“If the yahoos from all the entities from this place and that place come in with their expertise and designing, probably not,” she said. “But if it has neighborhood level vision, neighborhood level direction and focus then I think it could definitely do something.”

Advocates with BUILD say the model has already been proven to work.

Over the last 12 years, ReBUILD Metro has used a similar model to redevelop hundreds of vacant units in the Oliver/Broadway East neighborhood in East Baltimore. Vacancy went down by 85%, murders by half, and population increased by 48%, at the same time as the city was losing population. These neighborhoods have remained more than 90% Black.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Rev. Andrew Connors of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church recalled the fire at a vacant house on Stricker Street last year, which led to the deaths of three city firefighters. Lt. Paul Butrim, firefighter/paramedic Kelsey Sadler, and EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo would still be with their families today if the home they bravely entered hadn’t been chronically vacant, he said.

“We know what we are proposing is a very big deal, and we know that it can be done,” he said. “In fact, we cannot wait any longer for it to be done.”