"There's a lot of people without homes, and it's about to get cold. There's hella homeless people living downtown," James said. "It's not right."
Another neighbor, Deborah Barry, said she had been independently talking with her landlord about turning some of his vacant properties into a shelter. It's the only way people will be able to move into them, she said.
"They just want too much for homes in this neighborhood," she said. "It's not affordable."
There are obvious problems with taking over privately owned properties and giving them to the needy. But the homes aren't being used, and they're dragging down the home values of the occupied homes nearby, Simmons argues. And many are city-owned: Out of the 300 homes the Roundtable has surveyed, about 80 are owned by the city, property records show.
Cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia have had some success in targeting the owners of privately-owned vacants for code violations, forcing them to sell the houses at auction or donate them to the city. But those then often become unaffordable for low-income people: A program called Vacants to Value in Baltimore gives buyers $10,000 in assistance if they buy a formerly vacant home, but some of the homes cost much more than that. And buyers have to prove they have the resources to rehab a home in a year.
A few cities have had success with turning vacants into affordable housing. New York City spent $20 million to turn some stalled condo developments into housing for low- and middle-income residents. The Women's Community Revitalization Project in Philadelphia has used land trusts to create affordable housing for low-income women. And a few cities have taken advantage of a law that allows vacant federal buildings to be turned into housing for the homeless.
Still, Kutler says, developers aren't exactly excited about the idea of giving up housing stock for the people sleeping on the streets of Baltimore. Because the housing market in the city is weak, developers are more focused on gentrifying neighborhoods and preventing more abandonment from happening. But community land trusts don't have to stand in the way of gentrification, Kutler says.
"Community land trusts and our permanently affordable housing efforts are actually a revitalization tool," she says, pointing to cities like Minneapolis where neighborhoods have been gentrified in part because of land trusts.
At any rate, Simmons, Kutler, and others in the group are particularly saddened when homes are demolished. It seems such a waste when there are so many people forced onto the streets.
Simmons shows me one long block of row housing in McElderry Park where every single house is vacant and boarded-up. The city commissioned an artist to paint a mural on it, and now the 35 houses are covered in big letters in bright purple and white paint that spell out "Forever Together."
He goes up to one across the street and fingers the plywood covering the door.
"Why can't somebody live here? The house is perfectly intact," he says, shaking his head. "Because it's cheaper to let developers buy them out, that's why."