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Population decline and job loss in Baltimore City over the last 50 years have contributed to the existence of 16,000 vacant properties throughout the city. An analysis of the city's housing market conditions and vacant properties found that more than 10,000 vacant properties are in severely distressed areas, around 700 vacant properties are in emerging markets within distressed areas, and around 5,000 vacant properties are in transitional or healthy housing markets. With this analysis on hand, Baltimore Housing recognized that the city's vacant properties could not be revitalized with a one-size-fits-all solution, so they created Vacants to Value.

Vacants to Value, a multi-pronged approach to stabilizing neighborhoods and removing blight block by block, gives the city a wide array of tools that can be effective in different market conditions. The city's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, announced the new initiative in November 2010. It includes six strategies:
  1. Streamline the disposition process
  2. Streamline code enforcement on transitional blocks
  3. Facilitate investment in emerging markets near areas of strength
  4. Offer enhanced homebuyer incentives
  5. Support large-scale development in distressed areas
  6. Maintain, clear, and hold properties in distressed areas and identify non-housing uses
Streamlining the Disposition of Vacant Properties
Prior to Vacants to Value, the city had a number of property acquisition and disposition challenges that led them to consider starting a land bank. The land bank concept met with some political hurdles, so Baltimore Housing developed a plan to streamline processes without creating a new entity. The numerous changes include restructuring some divisions within Baltimore Housing, removing appraisal requirements for properties assessed at less than $20,000, and using electronic signatures to reduce administrative delays in lien abatement. The changes are projected to cut disposition time by as much as 150 days.

Code Enforcement's Pivotal Role in Transitional and Emerging Markets
A combination of technology and more efficient procedures for code enforcement have helped the city increase the effectiveness of code enforcement in the areas that can benefit from it the most. The code enforcement department still responds to complaints from residents in severely distressed areas, but their primary focus is bringing properties up to code in areas where they will have a bigger impact -- neighborhoods with transitional or healthy housing markets or emerging markets with large-scale private revitalization efforts. The combination of more strategic targeting and a more streamlined enforcement process have helped the department complete more inspections – and more quality inspections – while reducing their staff from 100 inspectors down to 80. They expect to reach about 1,000 properties on transitional blocks in their first year of the new approach. In emerging markets, they now coordinate with private developers to ensure that vacant properties near major redevelopment initiatives are restored to code and that lights, streets, and sidewalks in the neighborhood are all up to par. Learn more about Baltimore's new code enforcement processes in the "Increase Code Enforcement's Effectiveness" page on this site.

Attracting New Owner-Occupants
To attract new owner-occupants to formerly vacant properties, the city has enhanced its homebuyer incentives and has targeted some homeownership assistance programs, such as $5,000 forgivable loans for firefighters, police officers, and teachers, just to Vacants to Value buyers. New residents of rehabbed vacant properties also receive significant property tax reductions.
Strategies for Severely Distressed Areas

For more distressed areas, the city is continuing to support large-scale redevelopment, but is also looking for ways to convert vacant properties into non-housing uses, such as urban agriculture and smaller scale community gardens. The city will continue securing and maintaining vacant properties in severely distressed areas while they wait to demolish or redevelop them at a later date. In the first year of Vacants to Value, the city expects 500 properties to be demolished.
A Work in Progress

Baltimore Housing recognizes that big new initiatives are not always going to be perfect right from the start. The Vacants to Value initiative will be monitored on an ongoing basis through regular citywide management meetings, referred to as CitiStat. In addition, the city held a summit in February 2011 to introduce the development community to the new tools and solicit feedback on ways to improve the process even more.
What Can Other Communities Learn from Vacants to Value?
1. Policy decisions should be matched to current neighborhood conditions and needs. Stabilizing neighborhoods in a city with large numbers of foreclosed or vacant properties can present a formidable challenge for local officials. Without taking time to think strategically, communities can easily make mistakes, such as diluting their resources so that they have no effect or using the same approach in every community regardless of whether it is a good fit. To make real progress toward stabilizing neighborhoods, communities need to understand neighborhood conditions and which approaches are best suited to addressing local needs within the existing budget. In creating the multi-pronged Vacants to Value initiative, Baltimore matched policies to neighborhood conditions by analyzing local data with the assistance of The Reinvestment Fund. Working with a data partner can help communities increase their capacity and develop a better understanding of current neighborhood conditions and the policy solutions that are best suited to meet local needs.

2. The end goal is to get results, not to implement a specific policy. Policies that are feasible in one community may meet road blocks in another. After the Genesee Land Bank in Michigan showed how effective land banks can be, a number of other localities, including Baltimore, considered creating land banks to bring vacant properties back to productive use. When it became clear that Baltimore's land bank plan was not going to be an easy sell to the numerous city agencies and officials involved in property acquisitions and dispositions, Baltimore Housing kept its focus on the goal of reducing barriers to the reuse of vacant properties and devised a new plan to get the results the city needed.

3. High-impact policies can be adopted during tough economic times. Just like other cities across the country, Baltimore City has been struggling to cut costs and balance its budget in tough economic times. Many of the strategies included in Vacants to Value have no new costs to the city and can actually get better results for less money than if they had stayed with the status quo.
Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano and Deputy Commissioner Michael Braverman spoke about the initiative in a podcast. More information on Vacants to Value is available on Baltimore Housing's website.