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Demand Exceeds Resources For Baltimore City's Vacant Houses

BALTIMORE (WJZ) – City housing officials say that when it comes to solutions for reducing the number of vacant houses in Baltimore—from demolition to rehabilitation—the demand exceeds the resources.

Even when vacant houses are slated to be salvaged, there are layers of capital and bureaucracy that make it difficult to turn them into homes again.

The fatal fire on South Stricker Street that killed firefighters Lt. Paul Butrim, Kelsey Sadler, and Kenny Lacayo on Monday exposed a longstanding issue in Baltimore and the many challenges associated with it.

A fourth firefighter, John McMaster, was injured while battling the same blaze as his colleagues. He was listed in critical condition following the fire but released from Shock Trauma on Thursday.

"If somebody was managing that property, those people would still be alive—those firefighters would still be alive," Bradford said.

The fire occurred in the city's ninth council district in West Baltimore, which is home to a third of the city's vacant buildings. John Bullock is the councilman who represents that district.

Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said that there is no simple approach to reducing the number of vacant houses in the city.

"Tackling vacancy isn't a straight line," she said.

For example, the vacant house on South Stricker Street where three fires were fatally injured while battling a blaze is located in what's known as an "impact investment area" of West Baltimore.

Kennedy noted that city workers have been going block by block trying to deal with vacant houses in the area but had not yet made it to South Stricker Street.

For example, vacant houses in the 1000 block of North Milton Street are slated to be demolished. The city targets about 500 properties a year for demolition.

But the process of burying the past takes time and so does the process of resolving it.

The vacant house on South Stricker Street had more than $50,000 worth of liens, taxes, and interest against it.

"I wouldn't even know where to begin with it, man," East Baltimore resident Kenneth Waller said. "But, $50,000 is a lot of money."

Kennedy said the city can continue to provide additional citations and ensure a vacant building notice is on vacant properties—but that would contribute to liens.

These liens often discourage private investors. In fact, they may have discouraged anyone from buying the vacant house on South Stricker Street, which went up for sale four times since 2010.

Nobody bid on the house.

The Housing Department's recently submitted capital budget shows that it would need $213 million to address the city's demolition needs.

Over the past five years, the city has spent an average of less than $12 million annually.

The city is looking at other options too.

"We are looking at all the tools in the toolbox, not just demolition," Kennedy said.

A property owner could sell or donate their house to the city. Or the city could take a property owner to court—but that requires significant legal staffing.

"A number of the tools require us to have additional attorneys and paralegals," Kennedy said.

It's a process that can be time-consuming, Bullock said.

"But at the same time, we need to make sure those properties get in the hands of someone who's going to do something with it," he said.

"You can't force them to sell properties," Waller said. "You kind of just have to bait them into selling it or hope they do."

These vacant properties can be one of the drivers of crime.

"If you look at a map of where the murders are, the most violent crime is in the areas of most vacants," Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos said.

And if those vacant buildings are removed, then the crime volume decreases, Bradford said.

Kennedy told WJZ that following the federal investigation into the deadly fire on South Stricker Street, the house at the center of it will be torn down via emergency demolition. Eventually, after a tax sale foreclosure, the city will hold the title of the vacant lot.

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