In DC, housing is so scarce that prices are skyrocketing, especially for charming, historic row houses. Just up in Baltimore, however, they can’t give many dilapidated row houses away, and Larry Hogan recently announced a plan to tear many of them down. Is that a good idea?
In the short run, parks will replace the tear-downs, but Hogan also announced a loan program to encourage developers to build new housing in the same neighborhoods.
What’s the point of knocking down housing just to build other housing? Our contributors discussed this issue.
Canaan Merchant articulated the concern:
There is a sense that these neighborhoods will just never recover (at least in our lifetimes) and until then the abandoned houses just make things more dangerous.
But if the “plan” (vague as it is) is to build parks and affordable housing then I have a hard time separating that logic from what we said about so many neighborhoods (like Southwest Waterfront).
Meanwhile, one of Baltimore’s best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced. That’s why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today.
Payton Chung explained the economics:
There is such a thing as property with a negative value. Think about if a smelly, flea-ridden old couch materialized in your living room — you’d pay to get rid of it, right? That’s negative value.
Given the high housing prices in DC, we can sometimes forget that the capital cost of rehabilitating (or even maintaining) buildings can be so high that those buildings have negative value. Gut-rehabbing an old rowhouse just to meet code can easily cost over $100,000.
Given that move-in condition rowhouses in West Baltimore can cost $50,000, there’s little economic incentive to rehab the houses unless you’re comfortable throwing lots of money away. Nor can you just rehab a few of them: vacant properties really drag down the value of entire blocks, and selective demolition isn’t an option since rowhouses depend on their neighbors for structural support.
What’s more, even good houses at low prices won’t be enough to stimulate demand for new housing. It’s easy to think “oh, housing prices are cheap, therefore it’s a bargain.” As new arrivals to Detroit can attest, though, that’s not always the case.
Not all rowhouses are created equal. The houses that are being targeted are quite different from DC rowhouses: whereas ours are typically 16-18’ wide, Baltimore’s rowhouses are just 12-16’ wide in most cases. (It’s not just a matter of platting — rowhouses have beams across their entire width, and the price of solid-wood beams doesn’t scale linearly.) Those extra few feet make a huge difference in livability, especially in the ability to have hallways next to habitably-sized rooms.
Richard Layman, a historic preservation supporter, posted some thoughts on an email list and gave permission to print them.
There is a difference in what people can do in weak markets as opposed to strong markets. In a city like DC, there is demand for property, whereas in Baltimore, my sense in talking with planners over the years is that they are beaten down by the sheer volume of the problem, that they have so many vacant properties and lots, that they see demolition as a reasonable step.
The weak market problem there is stoked by too much capacity for development in Howard, Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel Counties. There isn’t enough demand for all those places to be successful, and the success of the counties comes at Baltimore City’s expense.
But the reality in a place like Baltimore is that a demolished empty building becomes a vacant lot, no easier to revitalize, and merely a different form of blight, an exchange of one blight for another.
Jeff La Noue lives in Baltimore and gave a perspective from up there:
As a Baltimorean, I appreciate our rowhouse architectural character. However, there have been so many public policy decisions, including poor transit as well as the preponderance of crime and poor schools, that make many row house neighborhoods lose their favorability/marketability. As a result, many shells can’t be given away and there is no market to spend any money to redevelop.
We all dream of a time when the conditions change for many desolate row house neighborhoods. However, while we wait, the rot continues. In addition, Baltimore remains relatively affordable and we continue to build lots of new housing in the booming southeast part of the city and suburbs. The oldest and least desirable housing then goes vacant as people move up to better housing and “better” neighborhoods whether they be in the city limits or not.
I certainly would love to see a nuanced demolition plan that does not knock down the most charming and viable. However, I think we need to cull of the weakest of the rowhouse herd. It is hard to leave 20 to 30,000 vacant houses just sit for another decade or more. There is not enough demand for traditional row house living right now, especially with poor transit and little neighborhood retail, to make a massive rowhouse renovation plan financially viable anytime soon.
Could Baltimore be DC’s next bedroom community?
So, there’s negative demand for housing in Baltimore, and overflowing demand in DC. If Baltimore were adjacent to DC, we’d be talking about how it’s the next hot area, but it’s about 40 miles away. Could faster, better transit whisk Baltimoreans down to jobs in DC?
(Maybe that’s what Hogan has in mind with his $10 billion maglev, except he doesn’t want to pay for it, it wouldn’t go to the distressed neighborhoods, and Hogan just cut a transit line that would have.)
What if Maryland improved MARC speeds and frequencies to make the trains Metro-like. Would Washington-area housing demand flow into Baltimore? Richard Layman doesn’t think so.
If it were that simple, it would already have happened. I reverse commuted to Baltimore for a time, and yes, Baltimore markets itself as a cheaper alternative for people working in DC, but it really stinks to spend a couple hours each way each day commuting, especially if one does it by sustainable means (bike/walk/transit).
As I wrote previously, Baltimore is undercut by massive overcapacity of development opportunity in the suburban counties, and great poverty and financial needs within the city, which outstrip its financial capacity. It lacks a transit network which would recenter demand on the center city, for both commercial and residential location.
Plus, while it has cool neighborhoods, the city is large and isn’t so walkable between neighborhoods as much as it is within neighborhoods. EYA has a trademark, “Life within walking distance.” Baltimore isn’t set up that way.
Other contributors said that there might be a few spots where this could work, but they’re nowhere near where Baltimore is tearing down blocks. Jeff La Noue:
From a Washington perspective, there are tons of super cheap and good looking row houses within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC Station. That is a place that could seemingly develop market viability, but it needs some initial investment to get it going.
Yes, the property surrounding the West Baltimore MARC station is surprisingly undervalued. However, Sandtown-Winchester won’t be improved by transit anytime soon, since it opens a peculiar can of worms: Winchester Street runs atop the Penn Line’s B&P tunnel, halfway between Baltimore Penn and West Baltimore, and which is the subject of multibillion-dollar replacement proposals.
Commuting from Baltimore to DC would be much easier if the last-mile transit connections were better. The transit connections and densities surrounding Baltimore Penn and Camden stations leave much to be desired, and Washington Union Station isn’t convenient to most workplaces in DC.
Through-routing MARC trains down to L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City would help, as will the streetcar and [potential] future Metro Loop. So will new office developments within walking distance to Union Station, in areas like NoMa and Capitol Crossing.
It seems Baltimore faces such a mountain of problems that these demolitions may be necessary. One can’t help wonder if things would have been different if Baltimore had gotten a full subway system like the Metro, which was proposed around the same time.
And while the presence of the federal government kept Washington in better shape than Baltimore during the worst of times, the Metro elevated the value of downtown DC. Had it never been built, perhaps Washington would still be a “donut” of attractive suburbs around a continually decaying core with rising crime and insurmountable vacancy rates.