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Pretty Vacant

Challengers To City Councilman Young Say Abandoned Houses And Crime Mar 12th District

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele
Ertha Harris
Frank William Richardson
Bernard "Jack" Young

By Randy Leonard | Posted 8/15/2007

The city's 12th District, located in the center of Baltimore, stretches east of I-83 as far south as the harbor and as far north as 30th Street. The district is mostly made up of blighted areas, such as Barclay (one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the city so far this year), Johnstown Square (home to a number of abandoned public-housing units), and the desolate Old Town Mall. But along its edges are some prime bits of city real estate, including Johns Hopkins Hospital and medical campus to the southeast, the Inner Harbor to the south, Mount Vernon and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District to the west, and Charles Village to the northwest.

According to recent U.S. Census data compiled by the city, 23 percent of the district's housing units are abandoned, close to twice the citywide ratio of about 14 percent. One of the district's neighborhoods, Dunbar-Broadway, was reported 40.5 percent abandoned. According to the data, about 54 percent of families in the 12th reported less than $25,000 in earnings in 1999, compared to 35 percent for the city as a whole.

Community activist Ertha Harris, running as a Democrat to represent the 12th on the City Council, bought one of the vacant houses in the district around 11 years ago for about $20,000. Through a program offered under the Schmoke administration in the 1990s, residents could obtain loans from the city to rehabilitate abandoned houses, and if residents lived in the houses for 10 years, the loans were forgiven. Under that program, the city paid more than $100,000 to renovate Harris' home.

Harris says programs such as that one are the kinds of "real programs and real outreach" that should be brought back to Baltimore.

Harris lives three houses down from the Dawson Safe Haven Center in Oliver, an outreach center constructed at the former home of the Dawsons, a family that was killed in a firebombing in 2002 for reporting drug activity in their neighborhood. Harris thinks the money spent to open the center--$1.2 million--would have been put to better use renovating the dozen or so abandoned houses in the area, which could then be offered for sale to local families.

"I do not understand why we have so many vacant houses," Harris says. "We have so many people coming into Baltimore looking for opportunities to renovate these homes."

Along with vacant houses, Harris identifies inadequate schools and insufficient work opportunities as the scourges she would tackle if elected. Harris believes these factors are significant in reducing crime, which she says is "a symptom to the condition in the community."

Harris ran for City Council in 1999 and '03. In 1999, running to represent the old 2nd District, she received less than 2 percent of the vote; in 2003, she ran to represent the newly redrawn 12th District, was endorsed by The Sun, and received 3.6 percent. Harris, a supervisor and financial analyst for Rockville-based Deva and Associates P.C., says she helped organize the Million Man March in 1995 and works with a number of community organizations. She says there is a disconnect between residents and city government, which she thinks is the main cause for the problems in the district. "We don't have enough people participating in the process," Harris says. "And I know that's because we don't see what the relationship is to having a member that sits on the City Council and the community."

Frank William Richardson, who works with college police and coordinates student vans for the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, will also appear on the Sept. 11 primary ballot as a Democratic candidate for the 12th District council seat. If elected, he says he would focus on improving education, recreation, and housing in the city. "Urban blight has really struck us pretty hard," he says, adding that providing more affordable housing in the city is his top priority.

Richardson recounts several stories he's heard of Hopkins students being mugged in and around his Charles Village neighborhood. Richardson says he thinks boredom causes the crime that plagues his district.

"I know the bottom line is that the kids don't have anything to do," he says. He proposes mandatory involvement in various activities, such as clubs, jobs, or after-school programs, to get young people off the street. He says he picked the idea up while working as a language instructor in Japan for a couple of years. "If we give them something constructive," he says, "it will give them a chance to succeed, be part of something productive."

Richardson says more of the police cameras around town should be monitored full-time to enable law enforcement to respond to crime as it is happening. He also says that the city's drug problem should be addressed through increased focus on drug treatment; for example, he says, police should be able to issue treatment-oriented citations for minor drug offenses, freeing them up to respond to more serious violent crimes.

Richardson says his work as a youth minister and as a language teacher in Japan has prepared him to work with the wide range of individuals he would encounter as a City Council representative for the 12th District. "I've been able to see other things and other visions," he says. "I totally care about the people. . . . I'm from a diverse background. I'm from the community."

The incumbent city councilman, Bernard "Jack" Young, has been on the council for 11 years. He says the area has been on the mend under his tenure. "I've got urban renewal going on all over my district," he says, listing project after project: Station North, the Railroad Express building, Greenmount West, Barclay townhouses--projects that Young says he has been instrumental in moving forward.

Young says he has also sought to cap penalties and interest associated with parking tickets, worked to get a $100 credit for consumers who face rising water bills, fought for additional staff for parks and recreation, provided funding for pools at high schools, and worked to budget an additional $300,000 for the city's YouthWorks program to provide summer jobs for kids. In response to rising energy prices, Young introduced a bill to look into creating the city's own utility company, and he says the council is evaluating the possibility of purchasing power in bulk to save residents money. But his greatest accomplishment, he says, is his responsiveness to his constituents. "I'm approachable," he says.

Despite the development in his district, Young acknowledges that he's dissatisfied with the number of vacant dwellings in the neighborhoods.

"Vacant houses, that's my biggest frustration," he says, noting that some of the houses are in probate and under federal or state control, "but no one says anything to the state about the vacant houses that they own." Young says he is working with developers and the city's housing department to procure vacant houses through tax-lien sales, but he says the process is difficult. "The laws works against us," he says.

Young says that if he's re-elected, he'd continue to work on projects important to him, such as an inclusionary zoning bill that the City Council passed in June, which encourages new housing development to include affordable residential units. "My vision is for an inclusive city where everybody, from the person that works at McDonald's and to the person who might work on Wall Street, can live in the same . . . community," he says.

Young sounds the same tone on drugs as Richardson. "We need to make the drugs a public health problem, not a criminal problem," he told The Examiner in a story on June 6.

But Young's opponents say the 12th District is ready for a change. Harris does not criticize Young directly, but she alludes to ongoing problems she thinks a City Council member should address.

"Every year I get so upset because I hear people complaining about the same thing," she says. "Obviously somebody is not doing the job, or obviously we don't understand why that particular job is not being done."

Richardson is also critical. "I hear people brag about experience, experience, experience," he says. "But I notice that with experience also comes complacency."

Young says he has never worked with either Harris or Richardson and knows of them only through previous election campaigns.

"Where they been?" he asks. He is confident that his constituents are pleased with his service and will support him in the Sept. 11 primary election. "People know what I do and people will reward me."

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