Graffiti on St. Paul Street.

Will the city of Baltimore clean graffiti off privately-owned buildings during Brandon Scott’s tenure as mayor or will it require property owners to clean graffiti themselves and fine them if they don’t?

That’s the question residents and business owners are asking after a City Council member promised in March that city-funded graffiti removal efforts would resume by May 1 but then Department of Public Works officials said public funds will only be used to clean city-owned buildings — not private homes, stores, churches or office buildings.

The announcement that help was on the way, followed by the clarification that the city won’t address private properties after all, has left many city residents confused about how to deal with the onslaught of graffiti that’s blighting buildings all over town, reversing years of clean-up efforts in areas such as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Graffiti in Station North.
Graffiti in Station North.

Jennifer Martin, who lives in Bolton Hill, wrote on social media that when she called the city’s 311 service line to report graffiti on her Linden Avenue property, thinking the city would send a crew to clean it up, she wound up with a violation requiring her to clean it herself within 30 days or face a fine. In effect, she turned herself in.

“The city sent us a letter fining us within 30 days if we don’t clean it up,” the Spicers Run resident wrote. “We are getting bids for removal/cover-up (which is pricey) and I’m annoyed because I know it will just happen again.”

Besides being an act of vandalism, graffiti makes an area look rundown and neglected, business people say. That can make it harder for people to sell or rent real estate or get visitors to shop or dine in a restaurant.

“Try to rent apartments, especially with our high international student population that comes to the Mount Vernon area,” said Sonya Campbell, director of operations for Cove Property Management, during a recent meeting of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association. “It is not an easy task.”

Cove manages the Mount Royal apartments at 103 East Mount Royal Avenue and the Queen Anne Belvedere Apartments at 1214 North Charles Street. “For us, this is a big problem,” Campbell said. “Our properties expand around the block and the graffiti… is very, very expensive to remove.”

Graffiti on Charles Street.

The way an area looks affects its reputation, and when people see buildings in Mount Vernon marked with graffiti, “a lot of folks get concerned,” said Michele Richter, president of the community association.  “We want to give our city the best look that we can.”

Richter said Mount Vernon property owners also have been receiving code violation notices from the housing department for graffiti, and that makes it a financial and legal issue as well as an aesthetic one. According to city officials, a violation notice is a warning that could lead to a $500 fine if the violation isn’t abated.

“It’s a huge cost issue,” Richter said. And once owners get a violation notice, “that’s a serious thing for folks because it’s a legal document that they’re receiving from the city that says, if you don’t remove it within the 30 days you get a large fine and then you can have a lien put against your property.”

Private property owners who receive a violation notice for graffiti “are basically getting victimized twice: one by having their building defaced and second by having to pay a fine,” she said.

Part of the confusion, Richter said, is that there seems to be a ‘disconnect’ between city agencies, in which “one department doesn’t know what another department is saying.”

She brought up a recent case in Mount Vernon where a property owner was new to the area and called 311 to report graffiti. “311 was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and then issued a second set of violations on her property,” Richter said. “She was brand new. These are the kinds of things that are frustrating folks and lowering quality of life here in the city.”

Graffiti can be especially difficult for historic districts such as Mount Vernon, Richter said, because owners have to be careful not to harm the masonry surface of an old building if they try to remove it themselves.

“Either the cost is an issue to remove it or just the manpower, not knowing what to do,” she said. The city’s preservation agency “wants to make sure that people aren’t painting over bare brick or bare stone to cover it up, that they’re properly removing it. We’ve had some incidents where folks are doing that because so much of the wall got graffitied that they think, I will never be able to remove this with any kind of remover. So then they just paint, which jeopardizes the brick.”

The recurring nature of graffiti is yet another source of frustration, she said. “As soon as you remove it, they’re doing it again.”

Financial cutbacks

For years, the city’s Department of Public Works had employees dedicated to removing graffiti wherever it showed up, whether on city-owned property or private property. But in the spring of 2020, former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young eliminated funding for that service in the fiscal budget that began July 1, citing the need for cutbacks because city revenues had decreased sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canceling the “graffiti rubout” program was expected to save the city nearly $800,000 in fiscal 2021, according to budget analysts. But with fewer people out on city streets during the pandemic, graffiti artists such as the prolific KOBE have had a field day, or year, tagging buildings that were never touched before in areas such as Charles Village and Bolton Hill.

Help is on the way

In March, City Councilmember Eric Costello announced that the Scott administration had agreed to restore the funds for citywide graffiti removal that Young had eliminated.

Costello told members of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association (MVBA) in a Zoom call on March 16 that he and council member Robert Stokes Jr. asked the mayor to bring back the graffiti removal service because so many buildings have been defaced and property owners were getting violation notices from the housing department. Costello said he was told the city’s graffiti removal service would resume this spring.

“We have a commitment from the administration that graffiti removal service will be restored within the next month, by the end of April at the very latest. So that’s some good news,” Costello said at the March 16 meeting. “To Mayor Scott’s credit, he immediately understood this was a problem and that we needed to fix it, and he committed to us that he would do that.”

The administration “is still kind of working through some of the specific details” for resuming graffiti removal service, Costello continued. “But they’re able to do that because the folks who previously did the graffiti removal, those positions have not been eliminated. Those folks haven’t been fired. They still work for DPW but just in different functions, mostly in the Solid Waste division, so graffiti service will be restored…I think we really got the right outcome at the end of the day.”

“I just want to thank Mayor Scott and the city administrator because that’s been a priority for me,” Stokes said at the meeting. “The mayor really understood it and we moved on it right away…I have some graffiti all up and down Charles Street and I don’t want Baltimore City to look like a graffiti city.”

Costello followed the March 16 community meeting with a formal announcement about his efforts and Stokes’ efforts to get the graffiti removal program restored:

“Councilman Eric Costello (11th District) and Councilman Robert Stokes Jr. (12th District) met with Mayor Brandon Scott to explain the issue and seek a solution,” the announcement said. “At the Mayor’s suggestion we met multiple times with City Administrator Chris Shorter to restore the service and work through specifics…A huge thank you to Mayor Scott and his team for working expeditiously with us to get this resolved.”

Costello’s announcement went on to suggest that any property owner who has received a “Code Violation Notice and Order” to remove graffiti should contact their city council representative “to have an extension granted until the Graffiti Removal service has been fully restored.”

Costello got high marks for addressing the graffiti crisis.

“Thanks, Eric Costello for…essentially solving the graffiti issue,” one homeowner wrote on social media. “Eric announced the city’s DPW graffiti removal unit will be back in action in a few weeks!”

‘Modified restart’

On May 7, DPW announced a “modified restart” of its graffiti removal service, after a 10-month hiatus. “DPW stands ready and willing to again provide Graffiti Removal Services to City buildings and we are excited to support another priority of Mayor Scott’s administration,” said Acting Director Jason W. Mitchell, in a statement.

But it wasn’t the program for which Costello had thanked the mayor.

“Going forward,” the DPW announcement said, “graffiti will only be removed from public property and public assets, such as light poles, statues, etc. DPW will no longer provide removal services for private property and will instead refer inquiries to local service providers.”

DPW’s news came as a disappointment to property owners who were hoping the city would remove graffiti from privately-owned buildings, where most of the graffiti is.

In a Zoom meeting with Mount Vernon residents on May 18, Stokes said he and Costello have met with the city administrator and others to appeal the Scott administration’s decision to limit graffiti removal work to city-owned properties and to explain why private property owners need help from the city.

Asked by Campbell when he will get an answer from the mayor about the appeal, Stokes told the community on May 18 that he expected to hear back within a week. The mayor “said he would talk to his leadership and he would get back with me and Costello within a week,” Stokes said.”

Costello said in an email message on May 26 that he hasn’t received an answer from the mayor on the request to remove graffiti from private properties but he expects one soon.

“We’re hoping the mayor is going to say yes, and if he says yes that will be great,” Costello said at this month’s community meeting. “If he doesn’t, Councilman Stokes and myself will get together and figure out what the next steps are.”

Why is it taking so long to get a decision about restoring graffiti removal services to private properties in Baltimore?

Daniel Ramos, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the city, shed some light on that when he was asked to speak at the May 18 meeting of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association.

Ramos explained that budget considerations are a big part of determining whether to restore graffiti removal services that were canceled effective July 1 by the previous mayor.

“As many of you know, the city was in free-fall at this time last year. We knocked off $100 million worth of appropriations, which was roughly equivalent to five percent” of the annual budget, he told the community. “This was a very hard decision by the previous administration. I was in the room for that and I can tell you that this is the last thing we wanted to cut.”

The decision to resume graffiti removal service for city-owned properties only is an “incremental step” by the Scott administration toward a more complete resumption of the program, he said.

“Whether it is a full restart of the service or whether we look at other models, whether that’s providing more resources or providing referrals, those are all things that are still part of it,” Ramos said. “This was an incremental step in restoring this service. As you might have all seen, our parks, our city buildings, our right of ways, are suffering just as much as all of your private businesses.”

Public versus private

Compared to other cities, Ramos said, Baltimore before the pandemic provided a more comprehensive graffiti removal service than most.

If you look at our peer organizations, the big urban centers, we are a clear outlier in this particular service, where we provide the service…anytime, anywhere,” he said.  “Most other jurisdictions, like where I grew up in L. A., which is infamous for the amount of tagging that happens, the city provides materials and support but isn’t actually doing the removal.”

Another factor that the city must consider, Ramos said, is the issue of having city employees go on private property to remove graffiti.  The legal question of liability was one of the main reasons graffiti removal work on private property was separated from work on city-owned property, he said.

Ramos explained that graffiti is treated differently in Maryland’s state code than rat infestation or illegal dumping or certain other issues that may require public employees to go on private properties.

He said graffiti isn’t considered a “nuisance” the way certain other issues are, and the way it’s classified in the state code effects the degree to which city employees may legally enter private properties without first getting the owner’s permission.

“Graffiti is not listed as a nuisance in the state code so it kind of ties our hands in this liability issue,” Ramos said. “That’s kind of the genesis of how this decision got made.”

Figuring out how to address the liability issue and the cost issue – “looking at models that meet both the citizens’ and private property owners’ needs as well as the city’s needs for protection from liability” – is largely what the city is working on now, he said.

“The conversation is ongoing,” he said. “I know that the mayor had committed that we would be working together in looking at this particular issue. I just want to assure folks that this is not the end of the conversation.”

Was liability the main reason DPW decided not to work on private property or was it cost? MVBA president Michele Richter asked.

“I think it’s the combination of the two,” Ramos answered.

“Not a rich city”

Ramos said the citywide explosion of graffiti is one of many issues that the Scott administration is tackling as the city recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Whether that’s crime, whether that’s homelessness, whether it’s tagging, whether it’s trash or illegal dumping, those are all issues we that we are constantly faced with,” he said.

“We are trying to be strategic with our resources. We are trying to meet everybody’s needs.  But unfortunately, we are not a rich city. We can’t just provide the service in the way a lot of our richer suburban areas could in Maryland. I know none of this is good news, but we are working toward a more collaborative solution.”

Councilmember Robert Stokes Jr. followed Ramos’ sobering remarks at the meeting by saying he believes Mayor Brandon Scott appreciates the community’s concerns about graffiti. “We had a great meeting with the mayor and it was real positive, so let’s just see what comes out of tha, and let’s move forward with that.”

Downtown is different

One part of town that won’t have to wait for a decision from the mayor is the central business district. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore cleans graffiti from the first floor of properties within the Downtown Management Authority tax surcharge district when that service is requested, according to Mike Evitts, senior vice president of communications and brand management.

The district is bounded roughly by the Jones Falls Expressway on the east, Pratt Street on the south, Greene Street on the west and Centre Street on the north, with a jog up to State Center on the west side of the district.

Here’s a map of the district (outlined in green).

Evitts said any property owners within the tax district can request graffiti removal for their own properties but they must sign a waiver for work to begin. “For insurance reasons, we don’t work on buildings where we don’t receive permission or on public property,” he said.

If the city is unable to fully restore graffiti removal service to private properties, Richter said, she’d at least like to know what steps it can take so owners won’t have to worry “that their property would be in jeopardy or that they’re going to receive a high penalty.”

Ultimately, she said, she’s hopeful that the mayor will find an answer to the community’s concerns. She specifically noted the work of “KOBE,” a graffiti artist who has put his or her tag on dozens of buildings around the city.

For just one of the KOBE markings that has been removed in Mount Vernon, it cost the owners $500, “and there’s a lot of them here,” she said. “Anything that we can do to get this under control would be fabulous.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

4 replies on “As graffiti increases across the city, officials promise relief — but not to private property owners”

  1. Good  Evening,

    i appreciated your article and coverage from the property owners and city departments’ perspectives, but why did you not interview any of the graffiti artists in the photos cited? I’ve reached the point where if it’s tenanted, I feel sad. If it looks and looked like shit beforehand, I’m on the side of the graffiti artists. They’re not hard to find if you know who to ask. I follow a few folks on Instagram who are knowledgeable and live in the neighborhoods prone to graffiti. 
    I totally support removing tagging that’s crap, but when it’s public art that’s also a tag, I have to wonder why the city doesn’t designate a new ‘graffiti alley’ for these people to work. I know the taggers are very ‘anti establishment’ which is why they disrespect property rights…but why is the city not programming a solution in coordination with the what…three arts districts in the city?

    1. Justin, do you believe if the City were to create more graffiti friendly zones that it would decrease graffiti in other areas or encourage more? Genuinely curious.

  2. Lol anyone remember APES? Out of respect for owners Graf artists should respect certain properties & and sections as off limits. Not fair to force someone to incur a cost because of your so called art..

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