'Scarlett Letters' Put on Vacant Md. Buildings


How bad is Baltimore's blighted housing?

According to I-Team lead investigative reporter Jayne Miller, it’s bad enough that the city's firefighters are plastering some abandoned buildings with a clear warning sign.

Miller said the warning signs are part of a pilot program to keep firefighters safe. In the process, Miller said, the signs lead to questions: What about the people who own these dangerous buildings? And why haven't they been forced to do something about them?

The Baltimore City Fire Department calls it the Code X-Ray program. People in the communities where they're showing up call them something else – the scarlett letter.

“I heard it too,” resident Michael Miles said of the name. “I don't know what the scarlet letter is, but I heard it too.”

The phrase is derived by a book of the same name and refers to calling attention to something shameful, which Miller said applies to the vacant buildings where the placards are going up. They’re in terrible shape, becoming magnets for trash.

“I stay away from there because you don't know if the front is going to fall down or what,” Miles said of one such home.

The fire department started posting signs on the worst vacant buildings late last year. An ‘X’ on a red background is intended as a warning to stay out if the building catches on fire.

“It warns firefighters that this could potentially be an unsafe structure and to use a different tactic in battling this fire,” said fire department spokesman Kevin Cartwright. “We simply won't send these firefighters inside to battle a fire in an unsafe structure.”

Cynthia Mills, who has lived in the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue for nearly 30 years, said a bunch of houses on her block have the red Xs.

“I watched all of them go vacant,” Mills said. “Two others might be in line. They're the ones whose facades are crumbling.”

All of the houses with the red X markings on Druid Hill Avenue have received violation notices from the city, Miller said. The city tries to use such violations in certain areas to push property owners to rehab their buildings.

"We have an excess that needs to be demolished," said Michael Braverman of the Baltimore City Housing Department. "We need $180 million to do that demolition, conservatively speaking. We don't have that right now."

But in the area Miller visited, enforcement efforts may not matter.

“In a distressed market, that's right, because half of them aren't even going to have a property owner on the other side,” said Michael Braverman of the Baltimore City Housing Department. “Who's going to be responsive to an arm twisting?”

Most of the properties Miller checked on Druid Hill Avenue were listed by the city as having no contact with the owner.

Several of the placarded properties are actually owned by the city, including two that are next to a corner store.

Miller said that underscores the problem. Even when the city is the property owner, dealing with the worst of the blight is no better.

“We have an excess that needs to be demolished,” Braverman said. “We need $180 million to do that demolition, conservatively speaking. We don't have that right now.”

The amount of money the city budgets each year for demolition is about $2 million to $3 million, Miller reported. About 10,000 vacant buildings need to come down, housing officials said.

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