It is a well-known fact that one of the greatest challenges facing Baltimore is its thousands of vacant and abandoned properties. The root cause of vacancy is neither straightforward nor easily remedied. In fact, attempts to unravel the story behind a single building will quickly demonstrate to the uninitiated that Baltimore’s epidemic of vacant and blighted properties stems from a complex web of economic conditions, state and local policies, individual property owners, and even neighborhood politics, each block or building a different combination of these factors.
Fortunately for Baltimore, the Housing Policy Watch, created and led by Carol Ott, is working to unpack these issues. By educating and empowering the citizens of Baltimore with regard to housing and commercial property issues and also holding negligent owners accountable for their property through documentation and public display, Housing Policy Watch and its counterpart, the Baltimore Slumlord Watch , are working towards eradicating vacancy and blight, one problem property at a time.
In 2009, Ott started the Baltimore Slumlord Watch project at her kitchen table. Prompted by a derelict shopping center in her neighborhood, Ott took to the Internet, calling public attention to the property’s negligent owners. “Welcome to Baltimore Slum Lord Watch,” the very first entry reads, “This blog is a way for the citizens of Baltimore to identify known slum lords in their neighborhoods, and hopefully shame them into repairing, cleaning, or selling their dilapidated properties.”
Calling attention to gross code violations and the properties’ neglectful owners, Ott harnessed the power of the Internet and social media to demand that the properties be cleaned up and put to use. After a successful clean up of the first handful of sites highlighted on the blog, Ott started focusing BSW on other derelict properties and gradually created an online platform that grew from a few readers in the neighborhood to more than 500,000 unique views.
As the project picked up steam (the Baltimore Slumlord Watch has been featured in various news outlets, radio, and television newscasts), Ott realized she needed to expand her approach to better serve the needs of her readers. Two years ago, she created Housing Policy Watch with the mission of promoting “strong neighborhoods throughout Maryland, through continued community outreach and education efforts to enable residents to be strong advocates for themselves, and their neighborhoods.”
Housing Policy Watch complements the Slumlord Watch platform by increasing awareness of city resources and monitoring Baltimore Housing, drawing linkages between access to safe and healthy housing, economic development through eradication of blight and enforcing building code and housing law, and the revitalization and stabilization of neighborhoods through responsible growth.
Ott runs a lean organization with a big impact: in 2014, Housing Policy Watch and Baltimore Slumlord Watch highlighted 234 blighted nuisance properties, and updated its readers on 25 properties additional properties that were written about in the past. Additionally, Housing Policy Watch spotlighted major community development and built environment issues including affordable rental housing for working families, strengthening Maryland’s housing laws, and highlighting historically significant properties. It also showcased well-done rehabs, and sent more viable properties to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, in order to move them into receivership, amongst many other issues (read more about Housing Policy Watch’s accomplishments here).
Despite the many success stories that have resulted from the actions of Housing Policy Watch, when asked which one of the project’s successes has been the most meaningful, Ott sites the fact that the Baltimore Slumlord Watch and Housing Policy Watch models have proven replicable in other cities; she frequently receives messages from people outside of Baltimore, and to date, seven other cities have replicated the project, drawing attention to lax code enforcement and nuisance properties in their respective neighborhoods.
One of Housing Policy Watch’s greatest strengths is its ability to research and document onsite when action is needed, while also keeping watch for important upcoming policy and legislative issues. Looking ahead, Housing Policy Watch has declared 2015 the Year of Neighborhoods, and will focus on highlighting blighted vacant properties, mapping, advocacy, and legislation, all with a focus on Baltimore’s industrial buildings and their history. The organization’s current focuses include 611-661 S Monroe, a historic brewery complex, as well as legislative issues including hb0186, which affects the transfer of real estate data and enforcement, and HB 0351 which would alleviate the lack of communication between property owners and residents when issues arise with vacant or nuisance properties by requiring LLCs to have a company representative.
Throughout her work with Housing Policy Watch and Baltimore Slumlord Watch, Ott stresses the importance of listening and being true to one’s roots. In the case of Baltimore, this means embracing the city’s industrial history and the stories and histories of the city’s working class neighborhoods. Says Ott, “You know, we’re not D.C., we’re not New York City…and, really, we shouldn’t want to be those places.” And to Ott, Baltimore’s unique history should be celebrated. “I want people to see their city differently,” says Ott, “because then they begin to see themselves differently.”
For monthly updates and to read more from Housing Policy Watch, check out their website.