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Mobtown Beat

Blocked Out

City Turns to Cinder Block and Cement to Keep Illicit Visitors From Vacant Houses

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/28/2001

The inside of 1229 Valley St., a three-story rowhouse in East Baltimore's tattered Johnston Square neighborhood, is a horrendous wreck. Empty malt-liquor bottles and other fetid trash are piled ankle deep in the living room, emitting a musty, foul odor even on this crisp mid-November day. Several rickety chairs are scattered about, along with a smashed stereo speaker.

But as a Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) labor foreperson charged with securing vacant city-owned houses, Anthony Johnson has seen far worse. Here today to secure 1229 Valley, he tells of other such buildings where the floors are covered with drug needles and piles of human excrement. He and his crew have encountered dead or dying pit bulls--victims of the makeshift dogfighting rings trespassers sometimes establish in abandoned city dwellings.

"It's unbelievable what you see in these houses," Johnson says. "We've also found as many as six people living in vacant houses without water or electricity."

As for 1229 Valley St., it looks like it's served as more as a clandestine party spot since its last occupants abandoned the address in July 1999. It's precisely this sort of dangerous and destructive squatting that, in recent months, Johnson and a crew of HABC workers have focused on preventing. Soon all the house's first-floor doors and windows will be filled with cement and cinder block, and the interior will be as dark and still as a tomb.

For years the city has used plywood to seal off the vacant houses it owns, applying cinder block only to its most troubled properties. But that changed earlier this year, when, frustrated by constant vandalism and complaints from neighbors, HABC adopted a new policy, replacing the inexpensive plywood with a much costlier but longer-lasting prescription of cinder block and cement.

"We're cinder-blocking everything from this day forward," HABC spokesperson Kevin Brown says, with the exception of Baltimore's more stable and vandal-free (read: tonier) neighborhoods. "We cinder-block the first level and board the second and third levels. However, where the boards are already up they're going to stay, providing they're secure. We're not going to replace all boards with block."

Since adopting the new boarding strategy seven months ago, the city has used cinder block to shutter 1,150 vacant properties at a cost of $1.2 million. Where it used to secure entire houses with plywood for $350 a pop, the city now spends roughly $1,000 to block just a house's first floor. But Brown maintains that the added security the block provides justifies the greater expense. It's not unusual for city work crews to have to re-board a house two or three times because vandals have pulled off the plywood "to take the copper pipes, the fireplace mantel, or anything else they can steal," he says. Cinder-blocked houses, on the other hand, don't get broken into and don't become "hotbeds of illegal activity." (They are vulnerable to intrusion during the first 24 hours, before the cement has had a chance to harden, and city crews have had to repair block jobs damaged during this time.)

With winter coming, the new blocking strategy is likely to prove even more beneficial, Brown says, as it limits opportunities for "people who are cold or homeless [to] break into vacant houses and burn candles for light. A lot of them actually bring outdoor barbecue grills inside to cook and keep warm, and so you have a fire hazard," he says.

Baltimore City Fire Department spokesperson Michael Maybin agrees that "keeping people out of vacant houses is a plus" for fire prevention. While the rock-hard blocks might make it more difficult for firefighters to get into some properties, he says, on balance the cinder-blocking policy's advantages outweigh the potential problems.

"I can remember only one fire that we've had where the blocks represented a problem for us," Maybin says. "They didn't stop us from being able to do what we wanted to do, they were just an obstruction."

The police department's early reviews of the policy are also positive. "Wrongdoers tend to utilize abandoned houses for stash houses and other criminal activity," police spokesperson Sgt. Kevin Daniels says. "A house that is cinder-blocked is one that we don't have to worry about." At the same time, Daniels, like Maybin, says it's too early to issue an all-out endorsement. "We don't have the data to draw a direct link between [cinder-blocking] and crime," he says.

The only place cinder-blocking has really raised eyebrows to date is at the City Council, but even there it's registered only as a minor blip on housing-issue radars. On Nov. 14, council member Bernard "Jack" Young (D-2nd District) convened a hearing of the Housing Committee to discuss the city's plans for the more than 18,700 vacant houses it currently owns. While not a major part of the discussion, cinder-blocking did come up, with Young saying he supports the process "for safety reasons" but wants the housing department to be "open-minded to other creative uses" for the buildings--like turning them over to community residents and nonprofit organizations for rehabilitation. Young added that cinder-blocking can make it hard for potential developers to "get into a house and really look at its texture."

HABC's Brown dismisses that concern, noting that no potential rehabber has asked the department to knock down a cinder-blocked entrance to allow him or her into a vacant building. Even when developers are interested in vacant properties, he says, most "don't need access to the houses" because they intend to tear them down or save only their shells.

Back on Valley Street, barely 45 minutes after Johnson and his crew arrived on the scene, No. 1229 is sporting gray block windows and doors. While surveying his crew's work, Johnson says he believes the cinder-blocking program is a winner. Residents often stop to praise his crews, he says, and it's not unusual for motorists to pull up in front of a blocking job to try to persuade workers to seal a house on their own street.

"It feels good," Johnson says. "I feel like I'm really doing something for the community."

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