Seven row houses less than a mile from Johns Hopkins University that are owned by the prestigious university and have been vacant for years are now scheduled for demolition. 

The plan once the buildings are demolished, Hopkins has said, is to turn the area into “a green space.”

Hopkins had cited the dilapidation of the buildings and the lack of elevators in the buildings as reasons why they needed to come down. Residents have accused Hopkins of intentionally neglecting the buildings over 20 years, facilitating this now-imminent demolition. 

Since Hopkins announced this plan in 2020, residents of Baltimore City’s Charles Village neighborhood—where these soon-to-be-gone buildings currently sit, vacant and partially crumbling—have pointed out that the row homes currently overlook green space. Specifically, the Wyman Park Dell, a 16-acre park that is used by residents as an all-purpose gathering space, meetup location for activists, soccer field, dog park, concert venue, and much more. 

Hopkins had cited the dilapidation of the buildings and the lack of elevators in the buildings as reasons why they needed to come down. Residents have accused Hopkins of intentionally neglecting the buildings over 20 years, facilitating this now-imminent demolition. 

Beginning in 2000, Hopkins began purchasing the row homes along West 29th Street. Hopkins bought one of the homes in 2000, three more in 2001, another in 2003, another in 2007, and the last—the only one still left on the block—in 2019. Little was done to the buildings after that besides boarding them up and leaving them to sit and slowly degrade. According to Hopkins, the buildings they own now have rats and roaches, and are structurally unstable.

“The university has determined that the size and condition of the structures makes rehabilitation infeasible, and it is necessary to proceed with the demolition,” Jill Rosen, director of Hopkins’ media relations, told Baltimore Brew

Rosen also confirmed that Hopkins has no plan for development of the area, only the demolition of the row homes and the creation of the green space across from the 16-acre Wyman Park Dell.

Next to these buildings now set for demolition is the Dell House, a 14-story high rise apartment building. That building is also owned by Hopkins and has also been sitting vacant for years—it was purchased by Hopkins in 2003. In 2020, Hopkins explained to Charles Village residents that the Dell House needed many repairs, including lighting throughout the building, but did not provide more detail on what they intended to do with the Dell House.

Back when it was purchased, Hopkins stressed its commitment to the neighborhood surrounding its Homewood campus in Charles Village.

“The neighborhoods surrounding Homewood are very important to the future of the University, and we are working with our neighbors in a number of ways to enhance these wonderful residential and shopping communities,” a Hopkins official said. “The deal is another way of saying that we’re here to stay, we’re investing in the community and we’re committed to the future of the Great Homewood area.”

Last month, a vacant building in Southwest Baltimore at 205 S. Stricker Street caught fire, killing three firefighters and calling attention to the problem of the nearly 14,000 privately-owned vacant properties.

Since the pandemic, which has affected Baltimore’s vulnerable the most and left more and more people homeless, tents and other improvised structures for people experiencing homelessness have popped up in Wyman Park Dell. Not far from the park is another community of people experiencing homelessness living in tents. Frequently, people without shelter would sleep in the yard behind the Hopkins-owned row homes or even break inside to get away from the elements. 

“They tell us ‘leave,’ I listen. I‘m not looking for a problem,” someone who has used the 29th Street apartments as shelter told Battleground Baltimore last week. “I go to another [place for shelter] and before we know it, I got the ‘leave’ from them there too.”

As Baltimore Fishbowl reported, at a January meeting, the problems with the buildings were cited as reason for demolition. Among those problems, a Hopkins representative said, is that “homeless often frequent this site.”

The Dell House contains a total of 37 units where people could be living. The buildings on 29th Street set for demolition contain at least 30 units. This week, the person we had spoken to and his things were nowhere to be found.

Last month, a vacant building in Southwest Baltimore at 205 S. Stricker Street caught fire, killing three firefighters and calling attention to the problem of the nearly 14,000 privately-owned vacant properties. The Stricker Street building had been vacant since 2011 at least, and had actually caught fire before, back in 2016. It is worth around $6,000, which means that city and state taxes combined are just $150. 

“With taxes cheap and code enforcement rare in Baltimore, there is little reason for property owners to do much of anything to a building,” we wrote last week. “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 worst of this problem is in East and West Baltimore, where decades of redlining, white flight, and divestment from Black neighborhoods made it harder for people to keep their homes, making them vulnerable to real estate speculators. But these vacant apartment buildings in Charles Village, near one of the world’s most well-known universities and owned by that very university, show just how lax Baltimore City is when it comes to vacant properties.

While last month’s deadly vacant fire may move the city to finally take the issue more seriously, Baltimoreans are used to seeing a building’s lack of safety invoked to justify displacement that will lead to redevelopment. In 2016, the Bell Foundry, “a DIY haven for marginalized artists” where a number of people lived quasi-illegally for nearly a decade, was shut down out of concern for fire safety, city officials said. The building was later put on the market for a million dollars and sold for $725,000 to turn it into an “urban living complex.”

A vacant property sits at what the city has claimed is the heart of its arts community. A former bank building in Baltimore City’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District remained empty over the past 10 years even as the area was framed as the future of the city’s “creative” class. The owner has simply sat on it and occasionally rents it out (for example, Gov. Larry Hogan used it for local campaign offices in 2018). 

“The purpose of an arts district is to stimulate Baltimore’s creative economy and the reality is that we have absentee landlords holding vacant properties and bringing blight to areas for years with no legal recourse,” Cara Ober, editor and publisher of art magazine BmoreArt, told Battleground Baltimore.

Behind the building is a large parking lot, rarely maintained except when someone parks there without paying—or, should we say, “paying,” since how you pay is quite confusing—and they are towed.

As vacant fires in West Baltimore show, the city can do little to real estate speculators who buy up land in Black Baltimore’s most divested communities and do little with it, in hopes that, someday, announcements of “revitalization” will drive the price up.

“What they are doing is perfectly legal but it goes against everything an arts district was designed to create,” Ober added.

As Ober noted, the city has little recourse when real estate is sat on for larger future profits in an area of the city being “revitalized.” And as vacant fires in West Baltimore show, the city can do little to real estate speculators who buy up land in Black Baltimore’s most divested communities and do little with it, in hopes that, someday, announcements of “revitalization” will drive the price up.

In response to the vacant fire that killed three firefighters, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott announced a review of all policies for vacant properties. And Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy stressed that the city was going to “look for ways to advance the goal of mitigating nuisance properties and holding derelict property owners accountable.”

On Thursday, Feb. 10, a seven-story former brewery building in West Baltimore caught fire. It is privately owned and has been vacant for quite some time. There are trees growing out of it.

There is also legislation introduced by Delegate Regina Boyce that would allow Baltimore City to set “special property rates” for certain properties. This would allow Baltimore City to finally disincentivize real estate speculators who do the bare minimum to properties while they wait for its value to go up. 

“[This bill] can assist the city with growth of the market by forcing irresponsible and negligent owners of vacant and blighted property to rehab, to sell, or demo,” Boyce explained.

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.