The mayor also challenged city departments to come up with ideas to reduce the number of vacant propertiesBy Paul Gessler

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Mayor Brandon Scott on Monday ordered a city-wide review of all vacant housing operations, procedures and processes in response to a building collapse at a vacant property last week that killed three Baltimore firefighters.

Under Scott’s directive, all city agencies and departments have 30 days to provide detailed reports of all efforts they are undertaking to lower the number of vacant buildings throughout the city. Their findings will be provided to City Administrator Chris Shorter, who is leading the review.

The mayor also ordered city departments and divisions to brainstorm and come up with ideas for ways they can reduce the number of vacant properties and homes.

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“This is one of the most consequential undertakings of my administration,” Scott said Monday. “There is too much at stake to leave a single recommendation off the table. This is a top priority and ties directly into two of our action plan priority pillars, both equitable neighborhood development and ensuring clean and healthy communities.”

The announcement comes one week after three firefighters—Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and Firefighter Kenny Lacayo—died after being caught in a building collapse while fighting a fire at a vacant home. John McMaster, a fourth firefighter who was injured in the same collapse, has since been released from the hospital.

“This is about operationalizing our commitment,” the mayor said. “Anything less than our very best attempt at solving the problem would be a discredit to the lives of the brave firefighters we lost last week and the residents who we serve day in and day out who have been dealing with this issue for more than three decades.”

As of Friday, there were 15,032 vacant houses across Baltimore, 13,560 of which have private owners, according to figures provided by the city. About one-third of those properties are already in the midst of transformation, either through rehabilitation, private development, or being prepared for demolition or sale.

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Among the tools the city is exploring is receivership, or the process by which the city can take control of properties from delinquent owners.

The city Department of Housing and Community Development is on track to file nearly 500 receivership this year, according to figures provided by the city.

Through the directive, it is Mayor Scott’s goal to drastically increase that number.

“We are going to take the results of this 30 day review to develop an ambitious and comprehensive set of goals to reduce the number of vacancy both through tackling existing vacant properties and for preventing additional vacancies which will build on existing efforts to prevent property from turning to vacancy,” the mayor said.

As part of the effort, Scott said the city will tap into its share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help deal with vacant housing and blighted property in the city’s most underserved communities.

Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said the number of vacant properties is a problem stemming a massive drop in population, going from being one of the most populous cities decades ago to a population of 600,000.

The commissioner said the city has spent decades working to hold owners of derelict properties accountable through a range of measures, including code enforcement, condemnation, foreclosure and receivership.

“We have begun to unlock the potential in many neighborhoods, and we are on the brink of having the lowest number of vacant properties in the city in decades,” Kennedy said. “But what happened last week in a privately owned and vacant building in our city should never happen.”

WJZ asked city officials Monday about the red signs with white Xs placed on vacant buildings years ago to inform first responders about unoccupied buildings. That is done more now electronically, through dispatch, Chief Ford said. “To expose them to as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions when they get on scene.”

“(Those red signs with white Xs) is one of the items Chief Ford and I discussed as recently as this morning,” Kennedy said.

Chief Ford said BCFD is working with fire officials in New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and St. Louis on updating the department’s best practices for fighting fires in vacant buildings.

Kennedy said her office will work directly with the Baltimore City Fire Department in the coming weeks to identify policy changes and other ideas to present to Shorter as part of the mayor’s directive.

Mayor Scott said to “stay tuned” regarding how much American Rescue Act funds would be allocated to address the vacant building issue.

Paul Gessler