Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Remedy for Blight - Land Banking in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun ran an article today about Mayor Dixon's Land Banking plan. The article states:

"Despite owning more than 9,000 abandoned properties in Baltimore, the city sells about 250 a year to community developers and individuals. At that rate, Baltimore will never rid itself of this behemoth of blight. That lopsided ratio argues strongly for a better system of selling these rundown houses and vacant lots so that they can be returned to the tax rolls. Mayor Sheila Dixon has proposed creation of a land bank that would take control of the city's vast inventory of abandoned houses and streamline a process known to be cumbersome and time-consuming."

Baltimore is trying to proposed a land banking plan similar to the plans in Cleavland and St. Louis that were successful in revitalizing the outer fringes of those cities. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the outer fringes of the for the most part are stable, the bulk of the blight is located deep within the inner-city. As we know there are a whole host of factors that could have triggered blight in the inner-city versus the fringe.

My concern for the plan is from the struggles of a land banking program in Philadelphia, a city which shares more similarities with Baltimore then the previous aforementioned cities. Philadelphia's, Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative created by former Mayor Street, acquired large amount of vacant rowhouses and properties only to get quagmired by the demolition process by absentee landlords and individual property owners refusing to sell. While thousands of new housing units were built many neighborhoods were scarred even further by blocks that were partially cleared with only one or two rowhouse units remaining on the block. This created a scattered tooth effect which just accelerated blight even further. The article alludes to ownership problems when it states:

"The debate on this bill is just beginning, but the glut of vacant properties in this city - an estimated 30,000 - is too great not to approve the proposal, with some protections. Abandoned, rundown buildings have compromised the safety and health of too many city neighborhoods for too long. Most aren't owned by the city, though they are the city's problem. But 25 percent of vacant houses are city-owned, and a streamlined process to sell them would help generate more economic development opportunities and, ultimately, improve the quality of life throughout Baltimore."

Despite the predicted dilemmas that will come with the proposed Land Banking plan, one thing is clear, the problem will not solve itself and the city has to act. In this respect, the land banking plan is similar to the Federal banking bailout and stimulus plans. The failure to act now will only continue the decline of property values of the inner-city; however buying all these vacant properties is an expensive proposition for tax payers who will be left to finance these vacant properties if the city can not sell them.

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