Can Blockchain Help Turn Vacant Buildings Into Homes Again? Baltimore Thinks So.

The city of Baltimore plans to record all its 13,000+ empty houses and townhouses on the blockchain.

And it all started with Ebony Thompson’s class project.

From the Classroom to the City: A Student Develops Innovative Housing Policy. 

As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ebony Thompson experimented with digital deed transactions, recording deeds on the blockchain to show how a city might deal efficiently with empty housing.

After completing her studies, Thompson got hired by the city of Baltimore, and moved up the ranks to become the city solicitor.

In January 2022, three firefighters died, trapped in an abandoned townhome. Thompson listened intently at the press conference that followed. Many empty homes just like this townhome have been abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Now, the mayor was speaking about how Baltimore would repair and restore its multitudes of vacant homes ASAP.

The mayor directed every city agency to come up with ideas to help planners grapple with the problem. Thompson, envisioning a real-world use for her classwork, spoke up.

But as soon as Ebony Thompson mentioned blockchain, eyebrows went up. Why is this person promoting cryptocurrency as a policy idea?

Her First Task: Explain the Blockchain. It’s Not Just about Bitcoin!

Blockchain, she explained, isn’t cryptocurrency. It’s a digital ledger that supports bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. And it can support a whole lot more.

Let’s look, step by step, on where blochain fits into city planning to bring disused housing back into use again.

Baltimore maintains a community development map that shows, in red, all of the city’s empty homes. For each vacant structure that needs to be restored to a safe, livable home, Baltimore needs to undertake an examination of the public records, focusing on the title (ownership) history and any liens (claims for money that’s still owed on the home, use restrictions, and so forth). Who owns this home? Are tax liens or court judgments on the title?

Generally, Baltimore would do this search in preparation to acquire a given building. They’d put the home into legal foreclosure proceedings next. Or they’d use the government’s power of eminent domain to take the home and land. The city would then sell it as a fixer-upper or an investment property.

But a city cannot get an abandoned property deed into the hands of a homeowner without a clear title. And some of the documentation that’s needed could be in courthouses or on file with several agencies. All relevant details need to be captured, to complete the task and get the property off the city’s insurance.  

Now, what if all the title history were available right away online? What if there were a digital method to have every claim recorded, in a safe and secure fashion that couldn’t be tampered with? With blockchain, a data block is created for every claim, every contractual promise, every transfer that the deed undergoes. The information stays in one place, and can’t be manipulated for fraudulent purposes. 

Pilot Blockchain Test to Start. Results Could Support Racial Fairness in Baltimore.

This year, Baltimore will begin a three-year pilot test. During the next three years, the city will be recording all of its empty homes on the blockchain.

What started out as a class project has now become part of a $3 billion proposal to renovate the boarded-up buildings of Baltimore. (The city’s also hiring a team of title attorneys, and issuing bonds to fund renovations.)

Baltimore also hopes to use blockchain in other ways. City leaders are thinking of the positive potential of smart contracts, for example.

Right now, the vacant housing problem is one of Baltimore’s most pressing issues. A history of racial discrimination in real estate has taken a toll. While ensuring social fairness takes more than technological fixes, the blockchain could be a catalyst for change.

Supporting References

Amy Scott for Marketplace (a division of Minnesota Public Radio, hosted by Kai Ryssdal): To Fight Vacant Housing, Baltimore Turns to the Blockchain (published at on Jan. 29, 2024).

Sarah Wray for Cities Today, via to Track Vacant Properties With Blockchain (Dec. 11, 2023).

And as linked.

More on topics: Blockchain, Robots against racism

Photo credit: Steve Johnson, via Pexels/Canva.