A cluster of vacant rowhouses in the 1600 block of North Gay Street succumbed to the metal claw of an excavator this month, as yet another batch of unwanted city homes turned to rubble.
Once the East Baltimore tract is cleared, nothing will be built there. It will be turned into a community-managed open space, providing a patch of green for residents of nearby senior housing units and tenants at the restored American Brewery building.
The $215,000 demolition is among the most recent projects funded by the city’s Affordable Housing Program. The $60 million program was created six years ago, after then-Mayor Martin O’Malley dangled it as a carrot in his successful effort to persuade a skeptical City Council to support a new Hilton convention center hotel downtown.
But while the city-owned 757-room hotel opened in 2008 to fanfare, the housing fund has largely faded from public view. Some current council members weren’t even aware of it until The Baltimore Sun inquired.
The Affordable Housing Program has spent three-fifths of its original budget so far. And despite the program’s seemingly straightforward name, the bulk of that $36 million has gone toward tearing houses down, not putting them up.
“It was really a blight elimination program,” Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said. “There was some confusion about the money being used for development of new housing. In fact, that was not the primary purpose of the money.”
Still, Graziano says razing eyesores does support affordable housing. Demolition yields “an immediate benefit for the communities” by improving a neighborhood’s appearance. It improves public safety because vacant houses attract crime. And eliminating blight carries “the added benefit that it creates sites available for future investments,” he said.
While Graziano and other housing officials point to an array of new development aided by the program, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is upset the city hasn’t moved faster on a $3.3 million project in her Northeast Baltimore district — even though four years ago Graziano went to the Tivoly Avenue site to publicize the program.
To Clarke’s frustration, funding was cut from the city budget last year, then put back in this year. “This neighborhood is not a priority, except with the people who live here,” she said. “It is not a city development priority. We’re going to make it one, if it’s the last thing we accomplish.”
Graziano understands Clarke’s impatience but says there are reasons that other, larger-scale projects on the list have progressed more quickly. “It’s a very tough block,” he said.
The program has cleared the way for development in several parts of the city, the housing agency says. Residential housing has been built at Orchard Ridge, on the city’s eastern edge, where the Claremont Homes public housing complex stood. Last month 80 new and rehabilitated homes were finished in Barclay. In Johnston Square, renovations have started on East Preston Street, with construction of a 74-unit apartment building set to begin early next year.
The biggest beneficiary has been a project to overhaul the site of Uplands, a failed low-income housing complex in Southwest Baltimore. More than $15 million has been funneled into land acquisition and demolition for its revival, and 104 units of affordable rental housing are being built. Plans call for more than 700 units of mixed-income rental and owner-occupied housing.
“I’m elated to see vertical development going on on the site,” said Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, whose district includes the sprawling parcel.
Holton was one of several council members who backed the Hilton hotel deal after the Affordable Housing Program was put on the table, along with sweeteners like a new gymnasium at the Edgewood Recreation Center, also in her district. (She says her eventual support for the hotel was not related to those inducements.)
The community group BUILD, which aggressively pushed for the fund’s creation in 2005, agrees with Graziano’s emphasis on demolition, given that nothing new can be erected in a spot until blight is addressed, said Rob English, the group’s lead organizer.
He noted that the fund supported a project in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver that BUILD did with the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based developer. “From that work we’ve constructed 40 brand-new homes and a mix of rehab in Oliver,” he said. “It’s a start.”
English was surprised, though, to hear that $24 million still hasn’t been spent. According to data from the city, $7.7 million of that is out of the budget entirely — a casualty of the city’s budget crunch.
English said he expects the city to fulfill its original commitment, saying, “We look forward to seeing how that money is invested to rebuild blighted neighborhoods.”
The city faces an enormous challenge to deal with blight. A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office quotes Baltimore officials as saying it would take $180 million to demolish all of the abandoned, unsafe buildings that scar the city.