Dis-placia: Vacant in the Village [White Paper]

By Nneka Nnamdi

A blighted Baltimore is a Bleeding Baltimore. It's a broke one, too.  Living with blight can be as traumatic as being shot with a bullet.

What is blight it? When you hear blight, you might think about the disease that affects potatoes and has caused famine. But in this context blight refers to the condition of real property as vacant, abandoned, dilapidated, misused or underutilized properties. The City of Baltimore’s Article 13 Housing and Urban Renewal defines blight as:

(i) a preponderance of the structures or the dwelling units therein is detrimental to the public health, safety, or general welfare by reason of age, dilapidation, depreciation, overcrowding, excessive land coverage, faulty arrangement, lack of ventilation or sanitary facilities, failure to conform with the provisions of the ordinances or regulatory codes of the City of Baltimore relating to buildings, housing, or sanitation, neighborhood obsolescence or deterioration, {or}inadequate open space, parking, or access to transportation; or

(ii) there is a preponderance of defective or inadequate street layouts, or of faulty lot layouts in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility or usefulness, or of unsanitary or unsafe conditions, or of deteriorated or inadequate site improvements or community facilities, or of conditions which endanger life or property by fire or other cause or which retard development of the area, or any combination of these factors; or

(iii) the land is suitable for development but has not been developed to an appreciable extent because of obsolete platting, diversity of ownership, deterioration of structures or site improvements, a high rate of tax delinquency or mortgage foreclosures, or spoiling of the land as a result of excavation or usage, or any combination of these factors.

This is a very technical way of saying blight “designates a critical stage in the functional or social depreciation for real property beyond which its existing condition or use is unacceptable to community” (Breger).

The Solution-Focused  Approach

Cincinnati resident, Irene Hawkins stated in the article Cincinnati Neighborhoods Suffer from Blighted Housing.  that, “It's depressing … one time some of the neighbors and I got together and started picking up some of the trash around.” (Driehaus & Tom McKee, 2017). Her statement speaks both to trauma caused by vacancy but also to the resilience of people impacted to solve the problem themselves. Solutions for blight remediation should be coming from those with lived experience in affected communities. Leveraging resident expertise in blighted communities has many benefits from enabling authentic representational leadership to providing unique opportunities for data driven decision making by those whose lives are impacted by the decisions. Dara O’Byrne states, “without the data, we’ve been making decisions based on wishful thinking” (Beating Blight, 2014).  Worse than the aforementioned decision by wish is when decisions are made with data by those who haven't been impacted substantively by the condition on which the data was collected. In terms of blight remediation and community revitalization, this has resulted in urban neo-colonialism (commonly known as gentrification).

There are many methods to remediate blight. including large scale demolitions, targeted demolition, redevelopment tax credits, Historic Tax credits, $1 House Sale programs, etc. These efforts are mostly effective at preparing neighborhoods for new urban homesteaders. Often resulting in the displacement of mostly Black and/or poor existing residents to other areas that then become blighted because the systemic racial and economic issues that underlie blight aren't addressed. It is a vicious cycle. In the video on the Baltimore Plan (click here) circa 1950 one can see a bucket for the clean up campaign with the address 1819 E Biddle Street. Today, the most 1819 E Biddle is no more most of the block is vacant though a playground has been recently installed where some of the houses had laid vacant for years.

Any solution applied going forward should be devised with the intent of breaking the cycle of blight that has plagued communities of color and/or poor people. Solutions ought to be developed in a manner that is inclusive, equitable, non speculative or predatory. The aforementioned principles are most often present in solutions that are developed organically and close to the problem, that is to say developed for the people by the people.

The following is a step by step guide for dealing with immediate safety hazards presented by blighted properties:

Step 0. If you see running water, vermin infestation, downed or sparking power lines, smell gas or see/hear signs of an imminent implosion  MOVE TO A SAFE DISTANCE and contact DPW, BGE or 911 respectively.

Step 1: Take a picture of the safe hazard post it to social media with the address using the following hashtag #FightBlightBmore and whatever other hashes or handles you deem appropriate.

Step 2: Report to 311 - for full instructions on reporting code violations click here for Vacants 101 manual.  

Step 3: If not resolved in a reasonable time email your city councilperson and cc: fightblightbmore@gmail.com

Steps 1- 3 will be replaced  in Spring 2019 with download Fight Blight Bmore App from Apple Store.

After addressing the immediate safety hazards of a blighted property residents can try self help abatement. This is a step by step process initially developed by the Community Law Center in 2012.  The process has been refined by authors of Vacants 101, click here for the guide. This process is intended to empower community to take corrective action to make properties safe after the owner has failed to do so in a timely fashion.

The conditions of properties  that would cause for a property or neighborhood to be called a blighted, slum, tenement and shanty are not new in America. Even in Baltimore there has been a long history of slum clearance. The Baltimore City demolitions department as we know it today started with demolition laws put in place beginning in the late 1800’s. In the 1950’s there was the Baltimore Plan which was an urban renewal program aimed to address public health and crime concerns on Baltimore’s alley streets. Rent court and the inner block parks in Old West Baltimore are the result of this effort.     

Due to resident flight from American cities like Baltimore, fueled in part by racism, beginning in the 1960’s to surrounding counties, neighborhoods lost population as well as businesses, community institutions, and places of employment. These factors in concert with the post-industrial economic downturn of the 1970’s and the epidemic abuse of illicit drugs in the 1980’s resulted in numerous abandoned, improperly used, unkempt and underutilized properties commonly referred to as blight.

The Impact

People living in neighborhoods with blight are not only losing access to home equity, community history and public sector improvements, they are also being exposed to community based trauma resulting in long term stress from fear of unsafe property implosion, toxic exposure, and crime. In terms of economic impact “each abandoned property costs its neighbors $70,000 in loss as it sits vacant,” according to Aaron Klein’s research.

It is estimated that “more than 30 million housing units in the United States have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, gas leaks, or lead.”(Urban Blight and Public Health, 2017) Using these numbers, the economic impact of blight just in terms of lost home equity is over a billion dollars.

Beyond the dollars and cents there are physical health concerns associated with blight also. “The Neighborhood Blight, Stress, and Health: A Walking Trial of Urban Greening and Ambulatory Heart Rate”study shows that participants heart rates were elevated when walking past vacant lots but were normalized once lots were cleaned and greened (South, 2015). Additionally, Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park, Upton, and Druid Heights have life expectancy more than 10 years less than Baltimore’s least blighted neighborhoods according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance Vital Signs 15. Simply put, blight makes people feel bad. More than Just An Eyesore discusses how vacant properties, “affect community well-being by overshadowing positive aspects of the community, contributing to fractures between neighbors, attracting crime, and making residents fearful. Vacant land was described as impacting physical health through injury, the buildup of trash, and attraction of rodents, as well as mental health through anxiety and stigma.” (Gavin, 2013).

As aforementioned there is a racial aspect to blight in Baltimore. Even neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Pigtown which are often associated with poor and working class Whites have been able to maintain vacancy and abandonment rates  under 10% at least over the last 5 years .


In terms of a large scale long term solution to blight that is equitable and restorative without predatory lending, speculation or advantaging slum lords, Fight Blight Bmore has identified 7 practices, policies and programs that residents, businesses policy makers and other stakeholders should support to bring about the of end of blight in Baltimore. They are as follows:

1. Create An Independent Demolitions Monitor

Baltimore city has experienced a number of unsafe demolitions resulting from unsavory practices by the contractors hired to conduct them. The city has failed to hold these contractors to their contractual requirements. The state’s demolitions via Project C.O.R.E do have higher standard of practice than the city contracts with a higher price tag of an additional $10,000 per demolition. However, the State of Maryland has employed the same demolition contractors who have been doing shoddy work in the city for years. This fact in along with several studies that indicate that demolitions, especially concentrated demolitions, can create or worsen toxic exposures suggest that there should be an independent body that assesses the performance of demolition contractors and the safety of neighborhoods experiencing demolitions.

2. Abolish Tax Sales for Water and Environment Control Board Bills

Too many city homeowners and renters are pushed into or nearer to homelessness as a result of tax sales for unpaid water bills or environmental control board citations e.g. tickets for high grass, no trash can lid, etc. The mayor’s partial ban on tax sale for these debts should be made permanent. Also the focus should be getting eligible homeowners and residents assistance to lower their bills and correct deficiencies through Low Income Water Bill Assistance Program, Home Preservation Program, etc. Access to these programs and others are often complicated by tangled titles. These are property deeds where there is unclear ownership interest due to the death of owner. In the Black community specifically lack of education on and access to estate planning tools has become yet another contributor to blight because many properties that would otherwise be eligible for reductions in taxes and water bills or grants and low cost loans for capital improvements are not eligible because the titles aren't clear. Residents of properties are not eligible for these programs even though they may in fact be a rightful owner in terms of inheritance. For help with tangle title issues contact the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers service Advance Planning Program.

3. Comprehensive municipal Co-Housing and Collaborative Workspace policy   

  The new economic realities, cultural shifts  and the availability of space are creating a demand for collaborative living and work spaces. Co-housing is a housing community developed and managed through a participatory, non-hierarchical decision making process, that meets resident defined housing requirements to include resident focused design, common and or shared space with little or no shared community economy. A common ideology is a desire to live in a community where residents take collective ownership of the condition of the community as a whole. Collaborative work-spaces can be defined as  a self-directed, collaborative, flexible and voluntary work-spaces where workers may share similar business philosophies or operating values. Unlike in a typical office, those co-working are usually not employed by the same organization though they may work together to brainstorms, plan or execute their respective projects, programs or businesses. Co-workplaces often provide access to technology, office equipment, staff, etc that would be unaffordable to the individual entities who use the space.

    These collaborative environments promote community, creative/innovative and economic vibrancy. Baltimore is in need of each of these elements to propel its deeply rooted arts and entertainment cohort as well as to fuel the innovation culture that is popping up though the city via incubators, maker spaces, etc. Baltimore should develop programming  that supports the development of co-housing and collaborative work-spaces. Vacants to Value, which has been widely inaccessible to include projects like ICBC’s Baltimore Co Housing Initiative. The development of both types of collaborative work spaces could be boosted by creating a tax incentive  (similar to Homestead Tax Credit, Arts Entertainment or Innovation District tax credits) for their creation. A 5-10 year reduction in taxes would help to make properties more affordable.

4. Equitable Rent Court with Commercial Tenant Protections

Rent Court started in Baltimore around 1950 as a part of the Baltimore Plan, a blight remediation plan aimed at reducing the number of individuals living in squalid rental dwellings. However today rent court has a become a haven of protectionism for slumlords. At this juncture Rent Court needs an overhaul. It’s initial mission should be reaffirmed in policy and practice. Landlords should no longer be allowed to expose tenants to unsafe living conditions while extorting highs rents from tenants. An equitable rent court would include requirements for landlords to immediately house tenants elsewhere when home conditions present a serious danger to resident health or safety. Also, there should be mechanism within Rent Court for accessing if rents are in alignment with class of property to ensure that tenants are receiving comparable amenities to what renters in other areas are receiving.

Retail and commercial renters have little if any protections from landlord abuses. Some landlords charge excessive CAM (Care, Access and Maintenance) fees, others require tenants to make expensive repairs to HVAC systems and others are simply slow to respond to maintenance concerns or other issues that impact the ability if the tenant to conduct business. Housing tenants have some protections against slumlords via the escrow process in Rent Court. Retail but commercial tenants have to hire a lawyer then sue landlords. This is an expensive process and unduly burdensome for small business particularly those with Black owners, who already face significant economic challenges in launching or running enterprises. It is often said that small business in the engine of the economy. If this is the case small businesses should receive protections for predatory landlords so that their contributions to the engine are not damaged or impeded by exorbitant cost of renting space to conduct business.

5. Participatory Funding & Payment Processes for real estate development

On occasion blighted  neighborhoods do receive investment dollars for real estate development. These dollars often are used to develop public or low income housing, or for institutions, mostly non profits, to expand their footprints. When these developments do occur there are often residents, community groups or neighborhood organizations who have worked for years to attract development dollars to their communities. These individuals and groups spend countless hours on tasks from rallying neighbors to attend meetings, cleaning up allies, running needs surveys, interfacing with developers and local officials. They are an integral part of the development process but receive no direct financial benefit. Instead of the current model, individuals and groups that participate in these efforts should share in the development fee, as money earned by a person or entity for managing the development process for another party. This is but one idea for how these ventures can become more equitable.

6. Community visioned and led development of Competent Spaces  

Maurissa Stone- Bass, founder of The Living Well Center of Social and Economic Vibrancy,  describes competent space as “accessible, safe and affordable space that is transformable to meet a variety of community needs.  It’s space that is governed by the principles of cooperative economics and collaborations. It’s space that fuses the intersection of biophilia (humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life), social determinants and healing technologies.” Competent space includes but is not limited to office shares, incubation/innovation spaces, co- housing, retail coops, shared art gallery and mixed use spaces. Competent space is necessary for the health and wellness of communities. Blight stands in stark contrast to competent space. It impedes the physical, social and economic efficacy of a neighborhood.  

Baltimore does have many competent spaces. However, many of them exist within the “White L”, predominantly White and often more affluent communities, or within the shadow of corporations or other White led institutional structures.  However, most neighborhoods with concentrations of blight do not have an abundance of these spaces instead they have many expensive, yet low quality corner stores, liquor stores and other exploitative establishments including methadone clinics. In case where competent space does existed in blighted neighborhoods residents still may not be able to access them even if they are aware of their existence. Often development in blighted neighborhoods are murals and community gardens like neighborhoods like Canton, Harbor East, Locust Point and the Central Business District get projects that require cranes as noted by Baltimore resident Chris Ervin. Residents in blighted communities need access to resources to develop competent space based on their own needs. Baltimore city government specifically the Department of Housing and Community Development and Office of Planning should develop policies and programs, such as its Planning Academy that support resident conceived and led spaces.

7. Equitable Tax Assessment Calculations

In Baltimore city those homeowners living in neighborhoods where more than 51% of the properties are rentals the assessments of property taxes are calculated using the Gross Income Multiplier; a formula that representatives from the Baltimore City office of the State Department of Assessment and Taxation have been unable to explain. This formula according to staff (Sheila Preace) in that same office is antiquated and only used in Baltimore City. The Gross Income Multiplier allegedly uses an income approach to calculate property taxes. This unfairly impacts the property tax bills of owner occupied properties because rents in even in Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods are exorbitant in comparison sales values. The city and the state needs to discontinue use of this formula or apply it to rental units across the board. Perhaps though it is time to look at the way property taxes are calculated all together. In order to redress the impact high property taxes in communities which is also were strategically disinvestment in a new property tax formula should be developed to decrease property taxes levied in communities that have received their fair share of substantive investment in economic and infrastructure projects since 1960 or thereabouts.  


It is notable to mention here that Maryland should  bring an end to ground rent. Ground rent is a part of the legacy of preying on Black property owners that is small measure contributed to blight. It created an additional debt for which homeowners could lose their home if they are unable to pay or unaware that they must pay. The state should require all registered ground rents to be purchased by homeowners resulting in the conversion of all realty to fee simple by 2050. And, that any unregistered ground rents become null, void and enforceable by the same year. This will prevent ground rent holders from running to collect on unregistered ground rents or making ground rents unaffordable in neighborhoods primed for development or where gentrification has begun.  

Creating and applying these solutions will undoubtedly help to stem the tide of bleeding and brokenness in Baltimore by removing blight. It is important to note that the same policies that created this problem can not be used to solve it. And, that the legacy of racism must be confronted and addressed as apart of this process. Otherwise, community development in Baltimore will continue to be oppression by new names blight removal, urban renewal, community revitalization, etc… A healthy and vibrant Baltimore can be curated through equitable development policy and practice informed by the data and led by the village.

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This paper is a companion for Dis-placia: Vacants in the Village, an interactive transmedia art exhibition presented by Fight Blight Baltimore, that engages community in examining blight and proposing solutions. The exhibition uses art and technology to examine and explain the impact on people when the as built environment is in poor or ineffective condition. The exhibition includes the works of local artist who have lived experience with blight. infographic posters are paired with artist works to illustrate how available data supports their expressions.  This exhibition was launched as a part of Free Fall Baltimore 2018. Free Fall Baltimore is presented by BGE, and is a program of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.