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Mobtown Beat

Fact Checking the Mayor’s State of the City Address

Vacants to Value’s numbers don’t add up

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has staked her career on an ambitious 10-year plan to revamp the way Baltimore City does business, saying the old ways are unsustainable. In her annual State of the City address, she cited a new, $585,000 consultant’s report that predicts $750 million in structural deficits over the next decade and laid out a plan for bold “reforms,” including a renegotiation of the payments in lieu of taxes that city nonprofits make and a possible end to city employee pension plans, which she called “outdated” and “unsustainable.”

Key to Rawlings-Blake’s plans are the figures she cites. In her speech, the mayor cited numbers that should be easily verifiable—but aren’t. Chief among these derive from her Vacants to Value initiative, a much-touted two-year-old effort that aimed to renovate 1,500 vacant city houses in its first year.

“Since launching the initiative, 250 vacants have been torn down, nearly a thousand more are being rehabbed, and sales of vacant, city-owned properties have increased fivefold,” Rawlings-Blake told the packed City Council chamber on Feb. 11. “And it has spurred $47 million in private investment in our neighborhoods.”

City Paper asked Baltimore Housing to substantiate those numbers. It was a repeat of questions we asked back in November, when the mayor had tents and balloons set up on the Broadway median strip to celebrate the initiative’s two-year anniversary (“Still Pretty Vacant,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 5, 2012). We received a partial response to our latest inquiry, with the promise of more numbers later this week. Three months ago, Baltimore Housing spokesperson Cheron Porter cited the V2V website as the source for all relevant statistics.

But the numbers there are not comprehensive and are, in some cases, contradictory.

For example, the Housing Department’s eight-page “2 Years of Successes” report says on succeeding pages that 450 and 400 rehabs have been completed or are underway. The relationship between those two figures is not clear in the report, and the addresses are not listed on the V2V website.

The addresses that are listed by V2V are 778 property sales, of which 261 are noted as “Vacant Lot.” That would leave, at most (because some properties are unspecified as to whether there is a building or not), 517 vacant buildings available for rehab.

A random check of 10 such units found permits have been pulled for only five—and one of those was a demolition permit.

Four are under renovation, according to permit records.

If 40 percent of the 517 buildings Baltimore sold under V2V are being rehabbed now, that’s about 207 rehabs, which is pretty good. But it’s not 1,000. Even if all 517 were being rehabbed, it would be a shadow of the 1,500 goal the initiative set for its first year.

V2V also fines owners of derelict properties to spur renovation. The website features a map of such “target areas,” but there is no efficient way to extract the data from it.

Porter provided a list of the fined properties. “Under Vacants to Value there are 2 types of citations ($900 & $250) in targeted areas,” she says in an email. “As of February 13, we have now issued just over 1,000 of the $900 citations (for failing to rehab a vacant), as well as over 1,200 of the $250 citations (for failing to address a non-vacant violation).”

The mayor’s $47 million figure is now more than $48 million, Porter says, adding that the “number is conservative in that it does not include acquisition costs or soft costs, only construction costs voluntarily self-reported by those pulling permits. More than 25 [percent] of the permits have no estimated cost of work reported, and so don’t contribute to the $48.2 [million] number even though work is clearly taking place.”

The data supplied does not include building permit information, though Porter says they total roughly “6,500 permits on 2,160 properties. Large-scale developments are not included in this tally.”

That would be more than double the mayor’s claim.

Left unsaid is how many permits would have been pulled regardless of the V2V program and other government policies. The program itself seemed to be tracking its effects more narrowly. On the V2V website, under the title “Track Our Progress,” the city claims 533 rehabs underway as a result of “streamlined code enforcement” and another 418 rehabs under “Community Development Clusters.” That would amount to 951 rehabs, right in line with the mayor’s claim. The addresses are not listed, however, so there is no way to check the buildings to see if they are, indeed, being renovated.

That same page lists 117 demolitions, a bit fewer than half the demolition figure cited by Rawlings-Blake in her speech.

The city’s permits-search website has a date feature which should allow anyone to see how many building permits have been pulled in the city since November of 2010. But it doesn’t work.

In short, there is no way to independently verify the mayor’s numbers. A comprehensive audit of the city’s books would clarify the situation, but the mayor has resisted such audits.

“Our charge is to grow Baltimore, to rebuild a thriving city where more families choose to live,” Rawlings-Blake said in her address. “But we cannot build the foundation of a growing city on the mud of a fiscal swamp.”

The city’s fiscal condition is not the only thing that’s clear as mud.

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