Would you believe it?  A major policy of former mayor John Street is being picked up and will be put into action in Baltimore, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.  The Baltimore Sun says it all

Calling Baltimore’s abandoned rowhouses “hotbeds for crime,” Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced a nearly $700 million plan to tear down thousands of vacant buildings and replace them with new developments — a level of investment in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods some say is unprecedented.

NTI was a $300MM program put in place under the former mayor to demolish the hood.  Scores of homes were leveled in areas across the city with an eye towards blight reduction and crime rates; most NTI demolitions occurred in the western neighborhoods of North Philadelphia.  Towards the end of the program some of the money was drained to assist subsidized housing developments.

The key difference between Baltimore and Philly?  Who is paying for it and the size and the scope of the program.  Philadelphia paid for NTI by writing out massive amounts of bond debt.  With no dedicated revenue to back up the bond payments this severely limited the scale of the program because of the debt load that the city could handle.

In Baltimore we’re talking $700MM committment and it’s going to come from the state with Bmore mayor Rawlings-Blake pledging to toss in another $94MM.  Baltimore is quite a bit smaller than Philly and this has the potential to mow down not just a couple of blighted neighborhoods, but perhaps a half-dozen of them or more.

One of the neighborhoods targeted is Sandtown, where Freddie Grey lived.

Both initiatives have the same starting theory: mowing down crack and heroin dens should obviously reduce crime.  It offers fewer opportunity for wayward young kids to get into trouble.   At least, that’s how programs like this are sold to the public by officials to make the prospect of years of demolition palletable.

There’s certainly a downside, besides the debt.   Building trades contractors seriously overbilled the city for work performed.  The Redevelopment Authority which oversaw the demolitions had none other than John Dougherty running the agency–talk about a fox running the chicken coup.  When Ed Rendell was mayor he was able to knock down 10,000 homes with just $88MM; 6 years later with a much bigger budget it achieved an efficiency below 60% thanks to the overspending.

Four years into the program NTI transformed itself.  City Council, agencies and activists started to see NTI more as a honeypot to pay for all sorts of pet projects rather than follow Street’s original vision.  Street also didn’t propose a rigid structure for what purposes the money was to be used for.  This left the decisions to the whims of City Council.  Towards the end of the funding term last year almost $30MM remained unspent.

All-in-all, NTI is seen as a failure.   Demolitions were well underway when Philadelphia saw its homicide rate spike in the summer of 2006.  NTI also avoided confronting property speculators–those people who actively own blighted property and are far more interested in holding the deed.  Condemnation orders were slow to come or would not be issued at all. This resulted in some vacant and abandoned homes disappearing on city blocks but not other ones.  The program also didn’t focus on VLCIPs (Vacant and Large Commercial/Industrial Property).   Philadelphia is still littered with half-collapsed factory building blight which has never been touched.

Ultimately the largest failure of NTI was in its own namesake.  It wasn’t really a transformative program.   The policy which has boosted rehabs and new residential construction in blighted areas of Philly still remains the 10-year tax abatement program, a product of the Rendell Administration.  That policy too is controversial; some people would rather be happier with class and racial self-segregation  in its neighborhoods than see the gentrification that creates plural demographics and will only tolerate a demolition program so long as it keeps the deeds to condemned property out of the real estate market.

I can’t really say I want to congratulate Baltimore on this one.   We went down this road and it didn’t go well.  Maybe Maryland’s Republican governor who is paying for this and its Democratic mayor who is happy to accept the cash can figure out a better way to do it than we did.

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