A bigger picture

June 4, 2009

In the discussion that has developed around Baltimore’s vacant and abandoned property, one thing has become enormously clear to me. A fundamental issue feeding much of the city’s challenges is underutilized infrastructure. Baltimore is a city that grew to house over 900,000 people at the city’s population peak. Currently, we’re around 640,000. That means that the city infrastructure is overdeveloped by ~30%. Infrastructure is the physical network of buildings, roads, sewers, utility lines, bridges, ports, light rail, etc. The service network of solid waste collection, fire fighting, policing, health care, etc. depends on the physical infrastructure. It needs to be maintained. Maintenance costs money. We’re in a situation where we’re attempting to maintain city infrastructure that is 30% too large. This has resulted in everything being stretched thin, compounding the problems of overtaxed city services and residential flight.

So what can we do? 1. Attract residents. 2. Make the city infrastructure smaller.

In the comments of this site, there has been some back and forth between the two ideas. There are advocates for knocking down swaths of the city that are currently under-utilized (blighted). My initial proposal to revive the dollar house program approached the issue from the opposite side, creating an attractive environment for new residents to come to the city. I believe that both approaches are in order. I also believe that the folks at City Hall are of the same mindset.

The Waverly Playground at the YMCA burned down late last year, after three years of great fun. The community immediately rallied to rebuild it; in fact, I just got back from a shift with hundreds of other volunteers digging holes, cutting beams and installing posts. There is a lot of clay in the ground – wow!

City Council Rep. Mary Pat Clarke was there to show support, as she’s been instrumental in organizing the rebuild, and Mayor Sheila Dixon stopped by to give a speech, and dig a few holes herself. I had a chance to speak with them both for a few moments. Mary Pat helped coordinate the original dollar homes program, and had a few more pieces of information about how that was run.

Both Federal Hill and Otterbein were classified as historic districts, so there were a number of architectural requirements that were necessary for any renovation to be approved. The key element was that the city didn’t transfer the title to the purchaser until the home has been inspected and approved. That guaranteed that houses wouldn’t be sat on by speculative investors waiting on appreciation; the purchaser didn’t actually own the house until is was proven livable. Pretty smart, Mary Pat! 

Mayor Dixon was also eager to discuss the plan tomorrow night. As many people have expressed, she is concerned about speculators and slumlords, as she noted that some houses that were sold by the city to private citizens are still a source of trouble in our neighborhoods. Ensuring that adequate time and/or capital is invested in dollar home properties will be key to success.

All in all, a very encouraging day! The City is just as concerned and optimistic as we are, so I’m sure we’re heading down the right path already. Please come make your voice heard tomorrow evening!