Recently, The Baltimore Banner and other local news outlets have reported extensively about speculators purchasing both vacant and occupied properties in Baltimore’s disinvested neighborhoods. The speculators failed to deliver on promises and plans to rehab the properties that could have helped to revitalize those neighborhoods.
The condition of such properties was also at the center of reports about the deaths of three firefighters in a vacant house.
The proliferation of vacant houses is evident in many Baltimore neighborhoods. It can be traced back to racist residential lending and zoning policies in the city that date back to as early as 1911, when the redlining of Black city neighborhoods was first utilized. That history is coupled with today’s lack of investment in areas that need it most.
Immediately and urgently eliminating vacant and abandoned properties through rehab or demolition is essential to reduce risk to residents from hazards that the properties pose. Such measures would also mean less potential risk to our firefighters and other emergency personnel, who must respond when the buildings are burning or when they collapse.
Based on a recent Live Baltimore report, we know people want to move to Baltimore, and this is the opportunity to provide the units they want. In addition, prioritizing removal of vacant properties is part of our crime fight — violent crime is correlated with the concentration of vacant properties. Of the just under 15,000 vacant and abandoned buildings, the city only owns about 1,245 of them. The city owns about 7,900 vacant lots (most for redevelopment purposes) and an approximately equal number are privately owned. The cost to the city to keep vacant properties is more than $200 million per year, according to a recent 21st Century Cities report. Moreover, investment in our neighborhoods will yield significant returns for our communities.
The good news is Baltimore City is moving in the right direction, but the work is critical and demands immediate acceleration of the following strategies:
- Reduce dependence on receivership. Receivership is the blight-elimination strategy the city has used to extract properties from derelict owners and auction them off to the highest bidders. Some of these speculators highlighted in the articles are the high bidders. Community development organizations working on behalf of the neighborhoods in which they serve cannot compete with these high bids, resulting in the community goals getting derailed. Reducing the use of receivership is essential for success.
- Accelerate judicial in rem. Judicial in rem is our city’s newest vacant building and lot acquisition tool. When the unpaid liens exceed the assessed value of vacant and abandoned buildings and vacant lots, the city can foreclose immediately. I am proud to have worked with incredible partners to bring in rem to Baltimore. The city should acquire at least 1,000 properties per year with this method, and the Department of Housing and Community Development is building its capacity toward this goal. Thanks to the circuit court, our partnership has a dedicated docket for these cases. According to data provided to me by the Department of Finance and analyzed through a field study by my office, out of 454 vacant buildings in two neighborhoods in the district I represent, 28% of the vacant buildings are eligible for in rem, along with several more vacant lots.
- Increase liens on vacant properties to make them eligible for in rem. Residents can participate in getting properties eligible for in rem by calling 311 for a vacant building inspection. This is how the vacant properties get the $1,000 citations, and every day is a new violation, under my legislation. Then the liens can be stacked on these properties, making them eligible for in rem. While a vacancy tax also would accomplish this goal — because these owners won’t pay this tax — the General Assembly has to give us permission to levy such a tax on these derelict properties. Del. Regina Boyce will be introducing that bill. Based on the field study performed in the district I represent, 35% of the vacant buildings there are in this “approaching” in rem status.
- Expand judicial in rem to include liens below the value of the vacant property. Expanding judicial in rem to tax delinquent vacant and abandoned properties where the liens do not exceed the value of the property will help us take action without waiting for liens to stack up. Expanding in rem, rather than selling these properties in tax sale, helps us control the outcome of the properties. Additional steps may be needed with this method, but it is so much better than auction. The General Assembly will take action on this during the upcoming session, and thanks to Mayor Brandon Scott for leading this.
- Disperse the properties expeditiously. Once Baltimore City owns these vacant properties and lots, we have to quickly disperse them to responsible homeowners and developers communities trust to do the work according to neighborhood plans. Dispersing in clusters, and not individual homes in the middle of other vacant properties, increases our success. In partnership with Councilman James Torrence, I have convened a group of stakeholders to create Baltimore’s Land Bank, which will concentrate only on acquisition and disposition of vacant and abandoned properties effectively, strategically and efficiently. More to come on this.
- Reform the permit office. Rehab cannot occur in a timely manner if the permit office continues to be inefficient. Comptroller Bill Henry recently conducted an audit of the office, and his findings are similar to the experiences we have in our district.
- Create a pipeline to create jobs in the development sector. Handling the amount of rehabilitation and demolition that will take place is a huge opportunity for skills training and business development. This is the least developed strategy but just as important.
- Raise the money. Our vacant property problem is a $3 Billion problem, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and ReBuild Metro. We need this money for demolition of our most dangerous properties, stabilization for them now and then subsidies to ensure these buildings are rehabbed. The city does not have to come up with all of it, but we do need to borrow more in order to leverage additional investment from public and private sources.
The reporting revealed that homeowners are also being targeted. Some important strategies are necessary to protect our homeowners from predatory practices:
- Create a robust community education program. A well-financed community education campaign would educate residents about the resources available to help homeowners who are struggling to keep up their homes. The Homeowners’ Tax Credit and the Homeowner Assistance Fund are two such resources. The campaign should include referrals to the multitude of organizations ready and available to help families with opening estates, legal assistance, questions about paperwork, reducing fraud and more. The campaign should also focus on educating residents about how to avoid wholesalers and any scams that are targeting our communities. City and state resources need to be heavily invested in such a campaign.
- Accelerate home repair for older adults. Most of the older adults I represent are remaining in their homes. Home repair grants and trusted contractors are critical to help them age with dignity and also provide security. We have ARPA and money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for this, but there is still a huge backlog. Operating support for the Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors program is needed.
- Create a do-not-call list. Residents continue to complain about the multitude of calls, texts and emails about selling their homes. Councilman Torrence will introduce legislation to create a do-not-call registry so homeowners can avoid these harassing calls.
- Curb the practice of wholesaling. Wholesalers include those with the “we buy houses” offers. They approach homeowners to sell their homes offering a low amount, then have the owner assign the contract to them so they can sell at a higher price, and the investor keeps the difference. Del. Samuel Rosenberg is working on legislation to require these wholesalers to be licensed realtors, which will reduce or eliminate this practice.
Together, we can help residents stay in their homes, work diligently to control the outcomes for our vacant and abandoned properties, remove the possibility that residents or firefighters will be injured or killed in one of these properties, and make sure that our community goals are met.
Odette Ramos is the Baltimore City Councilwoman representing the 14th District, which is north-central Baltimore. She is the former executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland