Photo from Wikimedia

Photo from Wikimedia

When you don't know how to deal with something, destroy it. That's the strategy Baltimore and several other major cities have employed in the face of thousands of vacant homes. A recent Bloomberg article documents the tear-down of 4,000 vacant rowhouses in Baltimore. As the article explains:

Baltimore joined a growing club of declining U.S. industrial hubs that have decided they have more housing than their populations can support. The logic is that removing blighted sections of the city will help the larger body thrive, eventually clearing the path for redevelopment. The hard part is conceding that some areas are beyond short-term redemption.

This is troublingly reminiscent of the tear-downs of public housing high-rises in the 70s and 80s, when the federal government, recognizing that it had allowed its housing to deteriorate horribly and not having the money or desire to truly solve the problem, demolished the homes of tens of thousands of people to avoid a PR disaster. Although at least in that situation it was the government tearing down something that it, itself, had built, as opposed to something that was once privately constructed and owned.

Baltimore has responded in a similar manner, and it's hard to see how demolition is going to lead to anything better.

I've traveled to Baltimore several times over the last few years because my brother lives there. He has shown me both a city that is very much a center of crime, conflict and poverty, but also a city that has so much life and activity and a positive future ahead. Baltimore is far more than The Wire, that's for sure.

So the idea that the government would spend millions to demolish homes that once housed generations of families--where children grew up, where communities made a life for themselves--is tragic. What's more tragic is knowing that those homes could have housed future generations too. Now that future is resting in a pile of rubble in a now-vacant lot. As the Bloomberg article explains:

Demolishing an abandoned building may be less complicated than figuring out what to do with the land it stood on. Detroit has sold land to neighboring home owners for $100 a lot, and it has experimented with a program to use vacant lots to prevent storm water from flooding the sewage system. In Baltimore, Hogan's plan includes $600 million in redevelopment funding that may one day lead to new, affordable apartments and supermarkets. Initially, most lots will probably be converted into parks.

It seems to me that if you're going to get rid of something, you should have a pretty good idea of what you're going to put in it's place. And furthermore, you should have the data to prove that that's better a better use of the space. If thousands of homes are abandoned in these areas, who's to say that the parks that replace them will be any less empty and unused?

And of course, there's the problem of spending gobs of federal and local money to destroy historic homes. As the Bloomberg article reports, these sorts of projects have been funded with hundreds of millions for the last three years:

Efforts to eliminate derelict homes in the U.S. were turbo-charged in 2013 when the U.S. Treasury allowed six states that had received money from a pool known as the Hardest Hit Fund to use some of it for tear-downs, in addition to other foreclosure prevention initiatives for which it was originally earmarked. [The move...] made $370 million available for the demolition of residences.

Read the rest of the article here.

(Top photo by Rachel Quednau)


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