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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 16, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 17
Abandonment Issues: JHU Policy Students Get Handle on Baltimore City's Vacant Property Problem

A trio of abandoned houses in a 'micro' neighborhood studied by one student team.

By Kevin Sottak
Institute for Policy Studies

In 1950, Baltimore was the sixth largest city in America, with a population approaching 1 million. Today, Baltimore is the nation's 18th largest, with a population just over 600,000. The good news for residents and city officials is that the city's decades-long population decline has recently abated; the bad news is that the physical scars of this exodus — boarded-up homes, shuttered commercial buildings and junk-strewn vacant lots — still pockmark the city.

Five years ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley, in an effort to accelerate the healing process, launched Project 5000 with the explicit goal of reclaiming title to a portion of the city's stock of abandoned properties and putting them back into productive use. However, as often is the case with public policy challenges, there is a disproportion between the scale of the problem and the resources available to combat it.

From the start, city officials have faced questions about where to focus their efforts to get the greatest return on a limited investment. Should they concentrate on neighborhoods with relatively few abandoned units, in hopes of shoring up seemingly more stable neighborhoods? Or should they instead focus on the most blighted neighborhoods with the highest concentration of abandonment, where entire blocks might be acquired and put to better use? What other neighborhood characteristics — parks, school quality, homeownership rates — are important correlates of a neighborhood's health?

This fall, in an effort to assist Project 5000, first-year master of public policy students undertook the first systematic neighborhood-level study of Baltimore's abandoned properties and neighborhood health. The project was undertaken as part of the course Policy Analysis in the Real World, taught by Sandee Newman.

"The primary purpose is to give our graduate students real-world exposure to the challenges of analyzing a complex policy issue with limited data, statistical sophistication and time," said Newman, professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. "At the same time, this study provides city officials with a much more complete and detailed picture of this tenacious problem."

Over a 12-week period, teams of students analyzed several decades' worth of census and city administrative data, and conducted interviews and street-by-street observations in five Baltimore neighborhoods in an effort to understand whether there was a consistent link between levels of abandonment, the neighborhoods' underlying health and the specific features of the abandoned properties.

The neighborhoods studied were selected for their geographic distribution and demographic diversity and because each encompasses areas of both concentrated and dispersed abandonment. Often, the patterns occurred in close proximity; in one case, the width of a city street was all that separated areas of high and low levels of abandonment. Unlike previous analyses that aggregated results at the neighborhood or census tract level, this study examined abandonment within small, two-to-three-block "micro" neighborhoods.

The students examined the relationship between abandonment and an array of indicators of neighborhood health, such as property values, homeownership rates, crime, private investment and the presence of amenities such as parks and stores. Their preliminary findings, reported in December to an audience that included members of the Baltimore City Council, city housing and planning officials, community organizations and concerned citizens, offered some surprising insights. Most notably, no consistent link was found between higher levels of abandonment and other neighborhood health measures, such as housing prices and trends. Rather, the relationship appeared to be heavily tempered by other considerations, including the style and age of the local housing stock. The students concluded that the number or concentration of abandoned properties in a neighborhood is a poor targeting criterion for Project 5000 resources.

David McIlvane, a real estate agent involved with Project 5000 who attended the presentation, said he was surprised that the housing stock and age were such strong correlates of abandonment. "The data presented were very compelling," he said.

Another key finding was the discovery of "hot spots" — small areas of higher levels of abandonment, increased crime and depressed property values — within two apparently stable neighborhoods. The students suggested that these hot spots may be good targets for Project 5000 remediation, since they are already surrounded by healthier areas. The students also found evidence that dead-end streets, impassable lots and other features seem to serve as buffers, preventing the spread of crime and other problems.

Newman said that the richness, range and detail of the database developed for this analysis provides a more nuanced picture of the relationship of abandonment to neighborhood health. For example, in two apparently stable neighborhoods, the students discovered troublesome "hot spots" of high levels of abandonment, increased crime and depressed property values. Conversely, at least one apparently struggling neighborhood contained a several-block-long "enclave" of well-maintained homes with relatively high property values and homeownership rates.

"The students walked every block of the neighborhoods they studied," Newman said. "They were able to capture features of the problem that were hidden at the neighborhood or census tract level."

Student presenter Wesley Tharpe, a member of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello study team, noted that he was struck by the discrepancies between residents' perceptions of the cause or impact of abandoned properties in their neighborhood and what the data said. For example, many residents attributed the deteriorating housing to an increase in younger, more transient residents, but this was not supported by the objective census and administrative data. "One of the most important lessons for me was learning how to square what we saw and heard with what the numbers were telling us," he said. "In our analysis, we tried to tell a coherent story that wove together all of the different information we analyzed."

Michael Bainum, assistant commissioner for land resources in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, echoed the comments of many in the audience when he praised the students for their thoughtful analysis and new ideas, calling the presentation a "breath of fresh air." He added that he "hopes that this experience gives the students a sense of the frustration, and also the adrenaline rush," that public officials experience in trying to solve pressing policy issues.

Student Ami Patel said she chose Johns Hopkins in part because it was the only program that offered first-year students the opportunity to do meaningful policy research. "After the presentation, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke spoke to me and some of my classmates and told us that the presentation really helped her to understand what was happening in parts of her district," Patel said. "Knowing that our work was actually being listened to by policy-makers — to me, that was the most rewarding part."


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