Episode 721: Unbuilding A City : Planet Money Why is it so hard to knock down 17 vacant houses in a shrinking city?
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Episode 721: Unbuilding A City

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Episode 721: Unbuilding A City

Episode 721: Unbuilding A City

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Every once in a while, I take the Amtrak train from New York to Washington, D.C. And the train goes through a couple cities that are doing really well. They have, you know, fancy new buildings along the skyline, but Amtrak also goes through Baltimore, and Baltimore's a different case. It is a city that is shrinking. It's lost about 30 percent of its population since 1970. And what that means is when the train goes through, you see that Baltimore has all of these abandoned buildings.

So there's one block in particular that you can actually see from the train window. It is the 900 block of North Bradford Street, and it's these 17 skinny two-story row houses that are all boarded up. And they look basically like ruins. And every time I see them, I wonder, why doesn't Baltimore just tear those houses down? So a couple of months ago, I started going to Baltimore to ask about that block, and I found out that there are a bunch of people, including, like, everyone in the neighborhood, who really want this block to be demolished. Their leader is a woman named Janice Jacobs-Hudson. She has been around in this neighborhood forever, and talking to her, you realize she just knows everyone.

JANICE JACOBS-HUDSON: Miss Savannah (ph) who was an older lady, she would come outside and have on her little apron and walk up on a drug deal and say, y'all ain't taking my neighborhood over, you know?

KING: She didn't.

JACOBS-HUDSON: Yes, she did. Yes, she did.

KING: She wasn't scared?


KING: Janice has been on a mission for years to get the city to tear this block down.

JACOBS-HUDSON: Calling, going downtown, being a thorn in their side - I was a nuisance, and I know I was.

KING: I met Janice one afternoon at the place she hangs out, which is an abandoned factory that's been turned into a community center. It's about four blocks from North Bradford. And we were standing by the window and talking and all of a sudden we heard this popping. It's really hard to hear it at first.

JACOBS-HUDSON: Those gunshots.

KING: Were those gunshots?


KING: We got back from the windows. And then there were more shots.


JACOBS-HUDSON: OK. One, two, three, four - so let me make a call.

KING: While Janice was calling, I looked over her shoulder at her phone, and she's got, like, 10 names in her contacts that start with major. Those are the names of cops, guys she knows personally. She called one of them.

JACOBS-HUDSON: Listen, I'm in the building, right, sound like gunshots coming from down there in the 900 block of Rose Street. Y'all got that...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The call just came out. Officers are on their way.


KING: The gunshots were coming from a different block but also one that has a bunch of abandoned houses. And Janice says this is kind of her point, right? You've got all these empty houses, and these are places where drug dealers come, and they hang out, and they hide out. And then it's, like, 3:30 on a random Wednesday afternoon, and people are shooting at each other.


KING: Over the past six months, I spent a lot of time on North Bradford Street, like, a lot of time. And I think I have figured out why it is so hard to tear down not just 17 empty houses on a block in Baltimore but why it is so hard to knock down the millions of vacant houses in shrinking cities all across the United States.


KING: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.


And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Noel, you have gone on a journey here, a literal and metaphorical journey. And you have brought back for us a story of 17 houses, $700,000 and an amazing piece of heavy equipment.

KING: And, I promise, no more gunshots.


KING: I am from a small town in upstate New York, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Krohonkson (ph)?

KING: Kerhonkson (laughter) - and Kerhonkson is one of those little towns that used to have a booming summer tourism industry. But in the '70s, tourists stopped coming to Kerhonkson, and they left behind all of these abandoned hotels and bungalows. And as a result, I kind of love abandoned buildings. When I was a little kid, I maybe didn't have so many friends.

GOLDSTEIN: I feel you.

KING: (Laughter) And I used to break into the buildings. I would crawl in through a window, and then I would just sit there and I would hang out.

GOLDSTEIN: So that is totally alien from my experience of being a little kid. I grew up in suburban San Diego, and so basically in the '70s, when people were moving out of towns like Krohonkson, N.Y., they were moving into towns like Escondido, Calif., and it was growing and building. And there was an empty field across the street from my house that filled up with houses. And, you know, economically, that's good. You want people to leave places where there aren't so many jobs like Krohonkson.

KING: Kerhonkson.

GOLDSTEIN: Kerhonkson - and move to places where there are jobs, like San Diego. But there is this problem, right? When all those people leave, say, Kerhonkson or Baltimore, for that matter, you want to be able to knock down the buildings they left behind.

KING: You know, one of my earliest memories, Jacob, is one year some people set one of the abandoned hotels on fire. I can actually remember seeing the flames through the woods.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, abandoned buildings, crime - take me back to Baltimore. When last we left, there were gunshots.

KING: Right, and so Janice and I got away from the windows and she called the police. And then a couple of minutes later, it was all over. It went back to normal. We went back to the windows, and Janice starts telling me this story. This goes back seven or eight years. That is the first time Janice went to the city and said, would you tear this block down? And she says one of the guys from the city told her...

JACOBS-HUDSON: He said, Janice, that's kind of expensive. I said, I know, I know, I know.

GOLDSTEIN: Of course, it's the money, right, which is, like, the classic bummer in this story but good news - in this story, it was not really the money. There was this random, lucky break where somebody from the city went to a blight conference, which, apparently, is a real thing, found out there was this pot of money that came from some federal mortgage robo signing scandal settlement. And Baltimore got millions of dollars to knock down empty houses, and they put North Bradford, this one block, at the top of their list.

KING: Yeah. And when you visit North Bradford, you can see exactly why. So I first went in March, and I went down to the block, and it is as bad as it looks from the train.

OK, so we have one boarded-up house, one not boarded-up house - no, it is boarded up.

There are 17 houses on the block, even numbers - 900, 902, 904. They're covered with this ugly blue and brown and yellow fake stone. It looks like something that would be covering a castle at, like, a mini golf course. So I poked around a little bit.

Nine hundred twenty-four looks like I could just go right in. I'm going to try to do it. I can't help it. I tried the door and the paint's flaking off.

The door was, like, painted shut, so I gave up.

GOLDSTEIN: That's it? I feel like if - you keep doing an interview after the gunshots and, like, painted shut and that's it. You didn't make it in.

KING: (Laughter) It was a missed opportunity (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: Fair enough. So - OK, so it's been four years from the time Baltimore got the demolition money to the time you started visiting this spring. But when you went there a few months ago, the city of Baltimore had not yet knocked down a single one of these houses. The people in the neighborhood want them knocked down. The city has the money. What is the problem?

KING: To find out, I went to the housing authority, and I met a woman named Wendi Redfern-Curtis. Wendi is part of a team whose job it is to get these houses down. So I sat down next to her in a conference room, and she started explaining why it takes so long. She pulled out this color-coded municipal map of the block of North Bradford, and she says, you know, I actually know this neighborhood really well.

WENDI REDFERN-CURTIS: My grandmother owned 906 - well, lived at 906 Montford Avenue, which is...

KING: Nine hundred six Montford.

REDFERN-CURTIS: ...Right here.

KING: Show me on the map.


KING: That's your grandmother's house.

REDFERN-CURTIS: This was my grandmother's house, and this is Bradford...

KING: She...

REDFERN-CURTIS: ...So I spent a lot of time in this area.

KING: She's a block - she's a block away from it.

REDFERN-CURTIS: Yeah. And I have an aunt that lives across the street here. That's just - yeah - that's just where my family...

KING: This is - OK, OK, so this is - this is kind of personal to you.

REDFERN-CURTIS: This is very personal to me actually.

KING: Wendi's job is erasing the neighborhood where she grew up. When she was a kid, this neighborhood was full of people, middle class and working-class people. A lot of them worked for the Western Electric Company, and talking about it now makes Wendi a little sad.

REDFERN-CURTIS: So my parents worked for Western Electric. It was a factory job. They didn't go to college. They went to work straight from high school. They met there. They married.

KING: And then - and this is a familiar story in a lot of U.S. industrial cities - in 1982, Western Electric closed its plant.

REDFERN-CURTIS: In the cold of night in, like, 1983 or '86 - the same night, I think, the Colts left Baltimore - Western Electric decided that it was closing its plant in Baltimore. So that meant that my family had to move because we needed jobs.

KING: A lot of other families moved, too. And those houses on North Bradford and houses around them started to empty out. Seeing her neighborhood empty is really tough on Wendi. But she knows that Baltimore needs to be a smaller city. It is a smaller city. Those houses have got to be knocked down, and she is fired up to do it.

REDFERN-CURTIS: What happened before this wasn't easy. This is awesome.

KING: Knocking down houses is awesome, but she told me there are two big reasons it's really hard to do. And the first one goes back to 924 North Bradford - that's a house where I tried to open the door. Wendi had this slideshow of the houses, and she showed me a picture of that house.

REDFERN-CURTIS: See that? No curtains...

KING: No curtains.

REDFERN-CURTIS: ...But it's not boarded.

KING: But it's not boarded.

REDFERN-CURTIS: It's not open to casual entry, but it doesn't look like anybody's living there.


The house hasn't been condemned, so the city can't just knock it down. They have to actually buy the house from the owner. Well, guess what? Some of these owners have been missing for decades. So the city has to track them down, then they have to tell them we want to demolish, then they have to negotiate a sale.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, and didn't you tell me that one of the houses - the owner was actually in, like, in Ethiopia.

KING: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: They tracked the owner down in Ethiopia.

KING: And he wasn't going to be back for another year, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: And in fact, it took Wendi and her colleagues three years to get through this part of the process, going house by house, finding the owner, making the deal to buy the house. And you said it was - what? - like, about $10,000 they wound up paying for each house.

KING: Yeah, that's fair-market value. And by December of last year, Baltimore owned every single house on that block and demolition could finally begin. There was just one last thing.

VANESSA WEST: I'm the last of the Mohicans.

KING: This is Vanessa West (ph). She is the last person living on this block. She rents number 930, which is four houses over from the end. And one day, last March, I went down there, Vanessa and I sat out on her stoop. It seems like her favorite pastime is basically just yelling to people from (laughter) the neighborhood from her stoop.

WEST: Mr. L (ph), I sent a bunch of ice creams around there to them the - about a week ago.

MR. L: How did you get Michelle (ph) spoiled, too? 'Cause you got her big ass spoiled, too. She 30-something years old.

WEST: Lovable person.

KING: Vanessa is (laughter) a very lovable person. And when I first met her down on the block, I thought she must be a holdout. She wants to stay here for some reason. It turns out, I was totally wrong. Vanessa wants to leave. First of all, her house is in really bad shape. And last spring, not long before I met her, there was a storm one night. Vanessa was awake, and she hears this big boom. A house on North Bradford had literally fallen over.

WEST: I'm glad there wasn't nobody car parked out here 'cause it would've been totaled.

KING: Oh, you mean that the house actually fell into the street?

WEST: Yeah, some of the stuff fell into the street, some of it fell on the side. It's kind of dangerous.

KING: Vanessa lives with her son and her grandkids. She does not want them to get hit by a house. Vanessa really wants to move.

GOLDSTEIN: But there's this federal law, the Uniform Relocation Assistance Act. They call it URA.

KING: They may...


KING: (Laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: ...URA - and this law makes it very hard for Vanessa to move. In fact, it's another big part of the reason it is taking so long to knock down these empty houses.

KING: Yeah, this law was actually passed to protect people like Vanessa. It was passed in the '70s after these big waves of highway construction that ended up knocking down a lot of houses and screwing over a lot of people who lived in those houses.

GOLDSTEIN: And in a lot of ways, the law does what it's supposed to do. It does protect people like Vanessa. She gets some money to help relocate. And the law also says if it's going to, you know, kick Vanessa out 'cause her house is getting knocked down, the city must make sure Vanessa move someplace safe, decent and sanitary.

KING: So last year, Vanessa found a house that she really liked. It was bigger. It was newer.

WEST: So yeah, I'm ready. I think it'll be a good experience for me to move.

GOLDSTEIN: But this house did not meet the requirements of URA - or the U-R-A - whatever. It didn't meet the requirements of this law that is supposed to protect her. It wasn't safe and decent and sanitary under the law. She's in a wheelchair, and the house didn't have all the railings it was supposed to, so the city said, no, you cannot move into that house in that condition.

KING: So when I started visiting North Bradford last spring, everybody was just waiting on Vanessa. And she was waiting for the landlord to get that house fixed up so she could move in. I called Vanessa once a week, every week. And every week she said, it's about to happen. I'm about to move.

WEST: With God's will, God praise, I'll be gone next weekend.

KING: Finally, after a couple months of this, I basically said, I mean, come on. Here's a minute of that phone call.

What - Miss Vanessa, what happens if things don't work out next week? Because I know we've been talking since April and I know that you wanted to be - you thought you'd be out by December of last year.

WEST: Miss Noel, Miss Noel, don't - don't - don't - don't say that like that. I have faith that I'll be out of here next week.

KING: You don't - you don't want to - you don't want to talk about that.

WEST: Bad stuff, right.

KING: Bad stuff. I called Vanessa the next week, and she was still on North Bradford. And then in early June, the city finally gave Vanessa the go ahead. The house she had been waiting on was safe and decent and sanitary, and it was all hers. And in July, I went to visit her there.

WEST: Yeah, it took me a while, but I finally made it.

KING: Can you tell me how you feel?

WEST: I love it. It's more roomier. It's more spacious. I can get around a whole lot better here than I could down there. And I just enjoy it. I just love it. When I first came in, I just fell in love with it.

KING: And half a mile away, that very same day...

All right, so I am walking toward North Bradford, walking toward it. Wow, look at this. Oh, my God. One of the houses just came down. There's a big orange excavator with a claw, and it just - it just took an entire house down.

That was number 924. That was the house where I tried the door.


KING: That was amazing. That was number 926. That was amazing.

Number 926 - that was the one where the owner had gone missing in Ethiopia. By the end of the day, all but two of the houses on the block were down.

GOLDSTEIN: One was Vanessa's old house, number 930 where the water was still hooked up, and then the one next door, 932, that one had asbestosis. But those two houses came down two weeks later. So all the houses are gone now, and the plan is to turn the block into some kind of park or green space. Final accounting - all of the 17 houses on that block of North Bradford Street are down. The total cost - about $700,000. Baltimore still has 7,500 houses that need to be demolished. In the rest of the country, there are millions more houses that need to be knocked down.

KING: A couple weeks ago, I rode Amtrak down to D.C. and I looked for that block of North Bradford like I always do, but I missed it. It, like, slid right by me because I was so used to looking for the houses, and the houses aren't there anymore.


GOLDSTEIN: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter.

KING: Special thanks to Tonya Baker (ph), Michael Braverman (ph), Mabel Olds (ph), Jeff Carol (ph) and Jim Rowe-Caucus (ph) at Thriving Communities. That song you're hearing is "Take Me Back To Baltimore" by Elizabeth Cotten and it's courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. You can find more information about it on our website - npr.org/money.

GOLDSTEIN: Our show today was produced by Sally Helm. Also this week, we're conducting a brief survey to learn more about you, about people who are listening to PLANET MONEY. Please visit npr.org/planetmoneysurvey to complete it. It would really help us out.

KING: Last up, we've got a bonus mini PLANET MONEY episode I want to tell you about. We just finished our big series on the American oil industry. But we had one extra story about aspirin - yes, aspirin - and about how even...


KING: ...Aspirin is made from oil. Listen on the NPR One app or at npr.org/aspirin. I'm Noel King.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein.

KING: Thanks for listening.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Memories.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, that's what I was telling her, just the memories...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...Just the memories.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Well, let me go ahead and take the kids home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That's the song.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's right.

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