What Baltimore can learn from other cities that have tackled vacant properties

Published on: June 14, 2022 8:35 AM EDT|Updated on: June 14, 2022 6:26 PM EDT

Starting in 2012, Chicago’s Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) partnered with a for-profit developer and a community group on reviving about 90 vacant and blighted buildings in a 20-block stretch of the city for rental or homeownership. The group’s first project, on the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and W 62nd Street, was converted from a vacant property into a 13-unit residential building that opened in summer 2016.

Baltimore isn’t the only place that has struggled to reduce a glut of vacant properties: several other cities and towns also are dealing with decades of flight to the suburbs, the Great Recession housing crash, and the lingering effects of redlined neighborhoods or other remnants of racist or discriminatory practices.

Some states — including Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. — have been able to use a $1.5 billion Obama-era program to prevent foreclosures and address neighborhood blight, but Maryland did not qualify. Baltimore’s vacant house problem is so stubborn and pervasive that no one tool, developer or community association alone can solve it, but those working on the issue say the city should try new ideas, tap community resources and pursue legal options to make progress.

The Baltimore Banner went looking for examples of how other cities have addressed vacant and blighted housing. These are some of their stories.

Southwest Chicago’s holistic neighborhood campaign

Millions of Americans lost everything in the mortgage foreclosure crisis at the tail end of the early 2000s due to loose lending practices that left borrowers on the hook with more than they could afford. In Southwest Chicago, a historically working-class neighborhood with heavy concentrations of Black and immigrant families, some 11,000 foreclosures were initiated during the Great Recession, leaving behind about 700 vacant homes, said Chris Brown, director of operations of the Southwest Organizing Project.

The nonprofit organization known as SWOP works with dozens of members representing faith groups, health care centers, community development corporations, and other advocates to help communities act on the issues close to them. In the wake of the mortgage crisis, that meant transferring those hundreds of properties — many of them detached, bungalow-style houses — back into productive use.

In 2012, SWOP partnered with Brinshore, a for-profit developer, and the community group United Power for Action and Justice, on a 20-block stretch of the neighborhood with more than 90 vacant buildings. The cohort, using a mix of state and city funds and private philanthropy dollars, bought, rehabilitated and marketed the homes, many of which were offered at affordable prices, Brown said.

Since then, only eight vacant homes remain in that initial district, and the group has expanded to 115 more abandoned houses, and is looking to get state funding to do an additional 100 homes.

“The campaign was always holistic,” Brown said. “It’s not just about housing, but we worked with our local schools, and we did a big anti-violence effort, where we worked to reduce violent crime and shootings in the area.”

Brown said the area schools have improved and general crime in Southwest Chicago has dropped precipitously. There’s also been a substantial reduction in violent crime in their focus area, he said.

The coalition also engineered a workforce development program that placed parent mentors in local school classrooms, mostly in kindergarten through third grade, where they worked part-time and coached kids in reading and math. They ran programs for the area’s large Latino population, including Know Your Rights training and citizenship workshops, to ensure that the area’s immigrant population had the resources to stay housed.

Despite their gains, Brown said, the work can be challenging. Acquiring properties can take years if the sellers are reluctant to give away their investments, he said. And as they rehabilitate more houses, the value of neighboring properties has increased, Brown added, adding pressures on the group to keep the homes affordable.

Raising tax rates for vacant and blighted buildings in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., is trying to give property owners more financial incentives to keep their buildings maintained and occupied with a tax policy that increases rates for vacant and blighted buildings.

For example, owner-occupied properties in the district are taxed at a rate of 85 cents per every $100 of assessed value, while vacant homes pay more than five times that rate and blighted homes pay more than 11 times the rate of owner-occupied homes.

While this has added a financial burden to several dozen houses in the District since it was implemented about a decade ago, it has not significantly reduced vacancy and blight, said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. In a recent newsletter to constituents, he said the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for categorizing houses and enforcing housing code, has been too lax in deciding what counts as vacant and blighted and has granted too many exceptions to the special tax rates to owners who file for permits they never use. DCRA did not respond to The Banner’s request for comment.

Maryland State Del. Regina T. Boyce, who represents Baltimore, has introduced a tax differential bill in Annapolis, similar to the Washington, D.C., policy, twice in the last two years; both times, it hasn’t advanced out of committee or picked up a cosponsor. Her bill would authorize Baltimore City to set special tax rates for any class or subclass of taxable property that is subject to property tax, which could mean lowering property taxes for some city residents and raising taxes for others, she said.

“You could incentivize city residents by lowering property taxes and really try to find a way to get in the way of those who are speculating so they move to get rid of the property,” Boyce said, adding that several municipalities in Prince George’s County and Hagerstown, for example, already impose separate tax rates for certain types of properties, such as apartment buildings.

Boyce said she hopes to reintroduce the bill next session but has met resistance from those who fear the implications of setting special tax rates, which could place undue burden on some property owners or minimize city revenue. Boyce said the Baltimore statehouse delegation, City Council President Nick J. Mosby and Mayor Brandon Scott support the bill.

Preventive services in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza organized city agency and department heads around the goal of reducing vacant and abandoned housing when he took office in 2015. Through the city’s EveryHome initiative, officials have taken more than 800 vacant structures and found productive uses for more than 700 of them, city planning director Bonnie Nickerson said.

EveryHome is the umbrella term for a suite of tools city departments use to occupy and rehabilitate houses. Among the most crucial changes is the appointment of a housing inspector solely dedicated to vacant and abandoned housing with citations, Nickerson said.

The city also has partnered with the courts to help owners make repairs on homes that aren’t up to code. Officials use a tool called a property transfer affidavit that ensures a house with an open code violation can’t be sold or transferred to new owners without that violation being addressed in a “timely” manner. The city also has had success with receivership cases, a legal route that enables court-appointed “receivers” to take temporary possession of vacant and abandoned properties and sell them to new owners.

Using the city’s financial assistance programs, homeowners can pay for aging-in-place upgrades, repairs and lead-abatement programs, Nickerson said. A down payment assistance program helps homes stay affordable, she added.

And above all, Nickerson said, the driver behind the city’s success has been Tolemi, a software that aggregates houses classified as potential “problem” properties into a digital heat map; for example, those with open violation notices, tax liens or need of urgent repairs. The map has helped the city officials closely monitor homes at risk of becoming vacant or abandoned and connect residents with resources to stay housed, Nickerson said. (Baltimore also uses Tolemi).

Using land bank powers in Detroit

Detroit’s vacancy crisis eclipses Baltimore’s in volume: Tens of thousands of vacant and empty homes and lots have hulled out the once-dominant automobile manufacturing capital of America.

The state of Michigan determined in 2003 that too many “problem properties” were publicly owned: Lawmakers passed a land bank act in an attempt to create more opportunities for productive use out of government ownership.

Run in Detroit as a public body corporate, the land bank has special powers to acquire properties, clear the title and then sell the properties for less than market value. Though considered separate from the government, the Detroit Land Bank Authority must still comply with state statutes, such as the public information act.

After ramping up a little less than a decade ago, the Detroit land bank has sold more than 36,000 properties or lots, said Tim Devine, general counsel for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Of those sales, 15,000 were houses sold to new owners. More than half of those new homeowners have complied with land bank standards, Devine said, while others have been reacquired by the land bank to maintain until a new buyer steps forward.

“7,500 times, the citizens of Detroit have proven this is a workable project,” Devine said. “As a consequence of our success, home prices have stabilized and risen.”

In 2020, Detroit voters approved a $250 million bond fund for the land bank, which will enable it to address about 16,000 more homes, Devine said.

The land bank also oversees a nuisance abatement and compliance program that addresses vacant and abandoned properties owned by private individuals. Its statutory powers allow them to sue derelict owners; they’ve won nearly every case that’s gone to court and taken title, said Giuseppe Palazzolo, the Nuisance Abatement Program’s lead attorney.

At one point, the land bank had some 100,000 properties in its inventory: that number is now closer to 75,000, which includes about 63,000 lots, said Devine.

The land bank may be an effective tool, Devine said, but it can’t do everything. It doesn’t have the resources to help families stay current on their taxes and rental payments, and it lacks the funding to help people make improvements to their properties. And while their success may be considered “historic,” Palazzolo said, it requires buy-in from the municipality and governing administrations to work.

“There’s a lot of public criticism for the work we’ve done, but that’s symptomatic of how long these things have been an issue in Detroit,” said Alyssa Strickland, a spokesperson for the land bank. “If you have residents who have watched neighborhoods deteriorate for so long, one house at a time won’t cut it. They need to see more and more proof of success around them before they embrace change.”

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