Last week, a vacant row home in West Baltimore that had caught on fire years ago caught fire again. This time, however, the blaze killed three firefighters: Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler, and paramedic/firefighter Kenneth Lacayo. Firefighter John McMaster was also severely injured in the fire. 

Early in the morning on Jan. 24, firefighters rushed into the blazing building at 205 South Stricker Street, and it collapsed on top of them. The building, which has been vacant since 2011 at least, caught fire back in 2016. That time, three firefighters were injured putting out the fire. 

Untended vacant buildings in Baltimore are often deadly. In 2014, firefighter Lt. James Bethea died when the floor of a vacant building collapsed. That incident took place next to another vacant home that had caught fire. In 2016, a Baltimore man named Phil Lemmon was killed when a vacant collapsed on top of the car he was sitting in. The row house that fell on Lemmon had been vacant for nearly a decade by that point.

205 South Stricker Street dates back to the turn of the 20th century. The building is currently worth just $6,000, which means, altogether, the annual city and state taxes on it are around $150 a year. With taxes cheap and code enforcement rare in Baltimore, there is little reason for property owners to do much of anything to a building. Instead, property owners—including investment firms and an often confounding tangle of LLCs—will sit on such a building for years until it increases in value, spending very little along the way.

The city’s attempts at dealing with this problem of property owners leaving vacants in unsafe and sometimes crumbling condition have been at best inadequate, and at worst encouraging of negligence.

As Battleground Baltimore’s reporting on City Council President Nick Mosby’s $1 homes program shows, properly rehabilitating a vacant house costs at least $60,000–$100,000.

There are currently around 15,000 vacant properties in Baltimore City, and most of those are privately owned. About 1,500 are owned by the city. The city’s attempts at dealing with this problem of property owners leaving vacants in unsafe and sometimes crumbling condition have been at best inadequate, and at worst encouraging of negligence. 

The problem, in part, is that Baltimore City simply cannot keep up with code enforcement. But those in charge have also shown resistance to more aggressively taxing owners of these vacants. 

Back in 2009, Baltimore City Council proposed taxing vacant owners at a rate higher than other property owners to disincentivize them from sitting on dilapidated properties for years. Nearby Washington, DC, was the model for that proposal. But in 2010, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came out against the council’s plan and it was squashed. Making things more confusing—or, maybe, just more typically Baltimore-like—Rawlings-Blake had voted as City Council President in support of the proposal the year before. But by 2010, following the federal indictment of Sheila Dixon, Rawlings-Blake became the new mayor and, apparently, didn’t like the idea as much anymore.

A 2010 letter from the Office of Government Relations said such a change to how vacants are taxed “would contradict the business model employed in distressed areas by both nonprofits and for-profit developers alike to acquire inventory and hold them until they possess enough properties on a specific block or neighborhood to commence redevelopment.”

The 2009 proposal to raise taxes on vacants actually began with Baltimorean Matt Gonter. In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 24 vacant fire, Gonter took to Twitter and reminded others of what could have been: “Now’s a good time to remind everyone that, over 10 years ago, the Maryland State Legislature was going to grant Baltimore City the power to tax the owners of vacant and uninhabitable properties at a higher tax rate (similar to DC) but Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told them to kill it,” Gonter tweeted.

Occasionally, there is a public spectacle involving vacants being knocked down with elected officials standing nearby in hardhats; however, not enough vacants are being knocked down to counter the additional vacants that pop up. Contributing to the problem is Baltimore City’s declining population, which is around 585,000 currently, compared to around one million in the 1950s. By 1990, the city population fell to little more than 735,000, and by 2010, nearly 650,000.

As the Baltimore Sun reported recently, in the neighborhood where the vacant building that killed three firefighters was located,25 vacant homes were rehabbed and 19 demolished, while 47 homes became vacant, resulting in a net increase of three vacant homes” over the past three fiscal years.

One week after the fire, on Monday, Jan. 31, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott announced that there would be a review of all policies regarding vacant properties. 

“This is a top priority of my administration. Anything less than our very best attempt at solving the problem would be a discredit to the lives of the brave firefighters we lost last week and the residents we serve day in and day out,” Scott said in a press release.

Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy specifically noted that the city would “look for ways to advance the goal of mitigating nuisance properties and holding derelict property owners accountable.”

While the mayor begins what many residents hope is a process for handling vacants and punishing their negligent owners that should have begun at least a decade ago, many other Baltimoreans are fighting to simply remain in their homes. 

While the mayor begins what many residents hope is a process for handling vacants and punishing their negligent owners that should have begun at least a decade ago, many other Baltimoreans are fighting to simply remain in their homes. 

Evictions have continued throughout the pandemic, and Baltimore Renters United (BRU) has repeatedly called for an eviction moratorium. Former Baltimore Mayor Jack Young worked with the administrative judge and Sheriff’s Office to suspend evictions at the very start of the pandemic in March 2020. Housing advocates have said current Mayor Scott could do the same. Scott has said it is up to the state.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact that continued evictions will have on Baltimore residents,” Scott said in a statement. “However, this is a matter of State law that the City does not have the authority to address.”

During the first week of January 2022, as the omicron variant was surging, BRU noted there were 352 evictions scheduled while 5,000 people await rental assistance. 

At a hearing scheduled by City Councilperson Kristerfer Burnett on evictions last week, it was revealed that tenants are not even being properly notified of evictions by the Sheriff’s Office, who schedule evictions and arrive to evict residents. The Sheriff’s Office has only been posting eviction complaints on the outside of multi-family buildings. Councilperson Ryan Dorsey called this “unconstitutional.” Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office said they are not required to give tenants notice if inclement weather causes an eviction to be rescheduled, nor are they required to tell tenants what that rescheduled date is.

Meanwhile, residents of the Poppleton neighborhood are fighting to preserve the few homes in their community that have not been demolished or left vacant. Organized primarily by legacy residents the Eaddys, the community is fighting blight that is not the result of population decline or neglect, but stalled redevelopment: An out-of-town developer seized residents’ homes using eminent domain but has done little more than knock down some of the once-occupied buildings and displace people. 

“I want everyone in Baltimore to see what eminent domain is like,” Sonia Eaddy said to city housing officials who took a tour of the neighborhood last year.

As Battleground Baltimore reported in December, what that looks like in Poppleton is “overgrown, trash-strewn lots and mounds of rubble … after more than a decade of supposed ‘revitalization’ from well-connected, out-of-town developer La Cité.”

Just this week, one Baltimore resident took to Twitter to call attention to what is happening in her Northeast Baltimore neighborhood: Eminent domain is taking her family’s home of 40-plus year away for a proposed “eco-village” where, according to Baltimore Fishbowl, “duplexes will go for $250,000 to $260,000, and the cost of the single-family homes will range from $280,000-$290,000”—much higher than current housing costs.

“On February 1, 2022 my mother was told by the city that she has to move FROM HER HOUSE THT SHE HAS OWNED SINCE HER 20s. MY FAMILY HOME IS BEING STOLEN FROM US ! Gentrification is REAL ! @MayorBMScott i need answers,” she tweeted.

This is yet another problem with Baltimore’s housing: The city incentivizes neglect of vacants and the displacement of current residents in order to try and bring in the redevelopment it wants so desperately. Too often, however, that redevelopment never even ends up happening, leaving more vacants, well, vacant.

Brandon Soderberg

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.