Q&A: Baltimore Slumlord Watch
Two years ago, an anonymous blogger declared war on the absentee property owners letting large swaths of Baltimore rot. The Baltimore Slumlord Watch site is still going strong today, shining the unwelcome light of publicity on blighted real estate and the people, LLCs and (in some cases) government agencies responsible for them.
Names, addresses, resident agents, photographs -- they're all there, along with occasional commentary that doesn't pull punches. "Please note the lack of a roof, exposing this house to the elements — the houses on either side of this blighted mess are occupied," the slumlord watcher wrote of one rowhouse.
So, in light of the anniversary, here's an unusual Q&A for you all today -- one with an unnamed person. She describes herself on the blog as "tired of watching out of town 'investors' and others destroy neighborhoods as a result of their negligence."
Question: Is Baltimore Slumlord Watch a one-person affair -- not counting reader contributions -- or is there a slumlord-watch team?
Answer: It started out as a one-woman show, but others have joined in. I have a couple of people I consider "partners" in this venture, along with a legal advisor who I go to from time to time with questions. As word got out, other cities started similar blogs (Richmond, Va. and Columbus, Ohio come to mind) so I like to think we're now a loose coalition.
Q: How many run-down properties have you "featured"?
A: Out of the 358 total posts I've written, probably 200+ are centered on vacant properties.
Q: What prompted you to start the blog?
A: There were two reasons. One is the fact that I was laid off from my job and needed something to do. I'm a bit of a workaholic, and after a week of daytime TV, I found my brain turning to mush.
The second thing that spurred the project was the fact that I attended a community meeting where the attendees were discussing a problem property, and I realized this was the same conversation we had the last time I attended a community meeting -- at least 3 years prior. I figured that surely one person could make enough noise that someone would listen, without having to create a committee with several sub-committees to tackle the problem. I didn't want to hear to about this same issue three years later ... again and again.
Q: The blog is written anonymously. Why?
A: Because I have one child still at home. At the beginning, I anticipated receiving some nasty emails, perhaps even a threat or two. I am an adult -- I can take care of myself. However, a small child can't, and therefore to protect my child, I had to use anonymity. However, I do understand that it can't go on forever -- my ultimate goal is to shape public policy, and it's hard to do that when you're a "man behind the curtain," so to speak.
Q: Can you share a few personal details -- how long have you lived in Baltimore, what sort of work do you do and are badly maintained properties a problem in your neighborhood?
A: I have lived in Baltimore for just over ten years. I work for a nonprofit in Baltimore City, and have worked in communications for many years. Most of my career has been spent working for architects and builders, and I have been extremely fortunate to have worked for (past and present) people who have taught me everything they know about urban planning/revitalization, land preservation, and how to truly shape communities for the better.
Badly maintained properties are indeed a problem in my neighborhood. However, the true extent of the problem has yet to be realized. Right now we have a lot of empty-but-not-yet-abandoned homes, as a result of the foreclosure crisis and the resulting decline in the economy.
Q: What themes have you noticed in two years of Slumlord Watch blogging?
A: There are two types of bad property owners:
The first is the guy who watched one too many episodes of an HGTV or TLC show on real estate and decided he could do that too, and quickly found out it doesn't really happen in a day or a week, despite what you see on the show. (Have you ever noticed that the people on HGTV never seem to stand in line at the permit office? Never seem to have inspectors come around?)
The second is the true slumlord -- the guy who has owned literally hundreds of properties and has kept them in such horrible disrepair that he's in and out of housing court (and civil court) more often than most of us change our clothes.
Q: Which type do you think is easier for the city to address, a handful of neglectful owners with a lot of real estate or a lot of owners with one or two homes apiece?
A: The guy who owns the large number of parcels -- he's the guy the city should go after the hardest, because he's causing the most damage. Not only to our city, but to the people who live in and around some of his dilapidated properties. Anyone who's been sued hundreds of times for the same thing clearly isn't learning the lesson. Time for him to be told, "Get out and don't do business in Baltimore City."
However, the little guy who owns one or two homes should also feel the wrath of the city. But my guess is that most of those people do want to do the right thing -- they just don't know how, because they didn't bother to do the research beforehand. Sometimes education can go a long way. However, if they don't comply, they also should be hauled into housing court and fined heavily -- environmental crimes and housing violations can be just as hazardous as drug dealing on a community.
Nobody should be allowed to hold a community hostage, whether through illegal activity or ignorance and negligence.
Q: What could city officials do to attack the problem of neglectful ownership that they aren't doing now? What could residents do?
A: Create solutions that are sustainable over the long term, with strong no-nonsense leadership at the helm. Frankly, some of our neighborhoods are so filled with blocks of blighted homes and nothing to attract long-term taxpaying residents. It seems a waste to promote those homes as worth saving, when you have vacants in other neighborhoods that are viable -- neighborhoods with transit, strong infrastructure, and potential for further development.
One of the things -- an elephant in the room, if you will -- people don't like to discuss, is the fact that you will always have a "bad part of town." Always. Not every neighborhood in every city is going to be "the next Canton" or "the next ... whatever." The city needs to look at some of these neighborhoods, go back 50 years -- who lived there? Who lives there now? Have the demographics drastically changed, or is that just wishful thinking?
Develop our neighborhoods for the taxpaying, law-abiding citizens who live there -- they represent the people you're trying to attract -- make sure they have access to good schools, supermarkets, transit, clean sidewalks and streets, open space -- and the positive changes will happen organically and sustainably. If you develop a community for a population that doesn't yet exist, you're taking a huge risk, and with taxpayer money. None of us can afford to waste money anymore, or time.
Q: Have you seen results from the blog's MO of taking photos and naming names?
A: As a matter of fact, yes. I need to do some updating -- but there have been some changes, positive ones. 701 Washington Boulevard, our first property, now has a functioning business where the vacant supermarket used to be, and the entire shopping center has undergone small improvements. Other properties have been improved to some extent, and others have been sold. In the new year we'll definitely do an update on some of the worst-of-the-worst.