Baltimore Residents Hit Roadblocks In Efforts To Combat Urban Blight

Aug 10, 2016
Originally published on August 10, 2016 6:25 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some cities like Baltimore have lost residents, so they're trying to shrink, mostly by tearing down abandoned houses. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast spent time on a block in Baltimore that everyone wants torn down.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: No one wants the 900 block of North Bradford Street demolished more than Janice Jacobs-Hudson. In April, I met Janice in her office just up the street from North Bradford. We were looking out the window, and she was telling me a story about an old neighbor. And then there was this popping.

JANICE JACOBS-HUDSON: Those gunshots.

KING: Were those gunshots?

JACOBS-HUDSON: Yeah, OK - one, two, three, four - so let me make a call.

KING: Janice knows everyone in this neighborhood, including a bunch of cops. They're in her phone's contacts. So she calls one.

JACOBS-HUDSON: Sound like gunshots coming from down there in the 900 block of Rose Street.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: The call just came out. Officers are on their way.

JACOBS-HUDSON: OK, good.

KING: Empty houses attract crime. And seven years ago, North Bradford was mostly empty, so Janice and some of her neighbors asked the city to tear it down. As with the cops, Janice knows people in the housing authority. Michael Braverman is deputy commissioner of permits and code enforcement.

MICHAEL BRAVERMAN: She has my cell phone number. She calls and texts at least once or twice a week, and...

KING: To say what?

BRAVERMAN: It can be anything from, you know, I - there's a house I believe is a imminent danger that I need you to look at right now, to, how's your mom?

KING: Michael agrees with Janice, but the cost of demolition and finding long-gone homeowners and buying houses and relocating people - city estimates $700,000 to tear the block down. So it sits there for years.

In 2012, Michael got a break. He was at a blight conference on a bus, sat next to a blight guy from Ohio. The guy tells him he'd found a way to get money for demolition. After the housing crisis, big banks paid a big fine for shifty mortgage deals. The money was supposed to help keep homeowners in their houses. The guy tells Michael, you can go to your state's attorney general and ask for some of that money for demolition. Michael asked, and Baltimore got $10 million.

I like to think that North Bradford is at the front of your mind. You're thinking, like, ha, we're going to be able to give Janice what she wants. Was it at the front of your mind?

BRAVERMAN: Absolutely.

KING: So the city has the money. But four years later, that block's still standing. Here's why. North Bradford has 17 houses. Here's how it went - 902, the owner had been missing for years; the city needs to find him - 904, the owner the owner was still in the house; city needs to find him a new one - 912, the owner wasn't living there but said he could move back in.

Do you ever want to simply commandeer a bulldozer yourself and go out and just knock them down?

BRAVERMAN: Are you asking would I like to violate the due process required by the Constitution of the United States?

KING: Sure.

BRAVERMAN: It's a pesky Constitution. No, I don't think it's a pesky Constitution. I'm OK with the Constitution of the United States.

KING: Finally by late last year, the red tape was cut, and demolition could begin, except for one final thing.

VANESSA WEST: I'm the last of the Mohicans.

KING: Vanessa West, a charming woman in her 50s who rents 930 North Bradford. And again, everyone agreed. Vanessa wanted out. The city wanted her out. Here comes the third holdup in tearing down this block that everyone wants down.

Vanessa is covered under the Uniform Relocation Act. It's a federal law that says the city has to make sure she's moving someplace safe, decent and sanitary. She found a house, and the city inspected it. Vanessa's in a wheelchair. The house had no railings. The city said, no way. The electricity wasn't hooked up. The city said, no way. There was a problem with the furnace. The city said, no way. March passed, April, May.

Are you frustrated?

WEST: Yeah, a little bit because we was supposed to been gone since December.

KING: Yeah, you told me December 20.

WEST: May, and we still here. It is ridiculous.

KING: Finally in June, Vanessa got the OK. Her new house had passed inspection. In July, I made a final trip down to the North Bradford block.

Seven years, $700,000, one little block - Baltimore has 7,500 houses that need to come down and will likely need north of half a billion dollars and Lord knows how many years to do it. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.