A Baltimore City government committee heard explanations Tuesday from several government agencies all seeking to answer why a law mandating water shut-off in vacant buildings hasn’t been enforced.
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who sponsored the resolution that called for agencies to appear before the council’s Economic and Community Development Committee, said she hoped to “hear and understand a little bit more” why houses deemed vacant or abandoned by city officials often keep the water turned on, with the exception of homes where pipes had burst or other hazards were present.
She said there have been “many examples” of vacant homes causing water damage inside properties or in neighbors’ properties due to the lack of enforcement. And, she said the problem may also inflate rehabilitation costs and cause Fire Department officials to divert resources away from other priorities to deal with damage.
Baltimore’s vacant housing stock — which stands at a little less than 14,000, according to the city’s latest tally — is a costly detriment, according to a study published last year by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative. The report found that Baltimore loses $100 million in tax revenue from vacant properties every year and spends another $100 million annually on maintenance costs. Meanwhile, the homes tend to be concentrated in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, exacerbating long-standing problems in those communities.
Ramos, the architect of legislation designed to make it easier for the city to gain possession of some of the vacant properties, said some homes are more easily transferred to city control when liens mount from unpaid water bills. But the costs associated with water damage override the possible legal benefits of letting the water run, she said.
“Let’s just turn off the water and work on stacking the liens in other ways,” she said.
The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which spoke at the Tuesday hearing, prepared a memorandum in advance of the meeting outlining its role in water shut-offs and why the practice hasn’t been enforced. The agency is required by law to give notice to the city Department of Public Works whenever officials deem a structure vacant, and the public works department is charged with cutting off water service.
But the housing department said it gives referrals for water shut-off on a “case-by-case” basis only and that immediate service termination isn’t always warranted for homes that are newly vacant and likely to be abated quickly. Other times, a person might be “winterizing” their home, or need to keep the water on for rehabilitation purposes.
“While we have the authority to turn the water off to a vacant property, we do not have the authority to go in and remove the meters,” housing officials wrote in the memo in advance of the hearing. “As a result, it is fairly easy for someone with basic knowledge of meter vaults to turn the water back on at any time and turning off the utility alone won’t necessarily make the property un-inhabitable.”
In any event, the housing department created a list of five “tiers” to determine which homes should be considered for water cutoff. The first tier, which includes about 500 homes, is meant for properties slated for demolition.
Jason Hessler, the housing department’s deputy commissioner for permits and litigation, said investigation of the first tier of homes already is underway. After completing that group, housing officials will move on to the second tier, which is for homes with vacant building notices delivered more than 10 years ago and with no open permits.
Representatives from the Department of Public Works said they hope to be able to complete up to 20 cutoffs a day based on the location. And Hessler said the housing department will continually reevaluate the list to make sure priority properties aren’t getting overlooked.
City Councilman Robert Stokes voiced some concerns about the housing department’s referral process, including about the veracity of its data and whether homeowners receive adequate notice in advance. Eventually, he voted to advance the resolution along with the rest of the committee, with one person absent.