For decades, Baltimore residents have been living next to vacant properties that damage their homes and health and put their homeowners insurance at risk of cancellation.
The presence of vacant properties makes neighborhoods less safe and stable. For children in those neighborhoods, living in substandard housing or even walking past rows of vacant properties day after day impacts their learning.
In the past two years alone, three firefighters died in a vacant building. According to data provided by the Baltimore Fire Department, nearly half of all injuries of firefighters are from vacant property fires. Most of our city’s violent crime takes place in areas with significant numbers of vacant properties and vacant lots, according to sources used in Open Data research for Baltimore. In addition, according to last year’s 21st Century Cities report, the city is spending $100 million on maintenance of these vacant and abandoned properties and lots. The total uncollected liens (unpaid taxes, water bills, citations, etc.) cost us more than $139 million, based on an analysis from my office.
The problem is vast. Only combating it in an immediate, intentional, expansive and strategic way with significant investment and the right tools will resolve this crisis at scale.
Recently, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, Mayor Brandon Scott and the Greater Baltimore Committee announced a major initiative to raise more than $3 billion to attack this problem at scale. As I said the day of the announcement, while I have significant questions, this initiative is a huge leap forward. Raising funds, public and private, is one of the major pieces that was missing in the fight to eliminate vacant properties by rehab, deconstruction or demolition. The funds would be used to invest in renovations, the appraisal gap, infrastructure, incentives and capacity needed to do the work.
While raising the money is a key component, the right tools are essential for success. The first step is to acquire the vacant properties from the derelict owners. Of approximately 13,600 properties that have been designated vacant and abandoned, Baltimore owns fewer than 1,000 of them and half the vacant lots. It is not possible to have a whole-block strategy when all the city-owned vacant properties are scattered across the entire city.
In my previous role prior to my election to the City Council, I advocated for state legislation to create the in rem process. This law allows for jurisdictions to foreclose on vacant properties and vacant lots when the liens exceed the assessed value of the vacant property. The City Council passed the city’s in rem law in 2020. When I became a council member, I pushed to continue its implementation.
Thanks to the Circuit Court, there is now a dedicated docket for these cases, and the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development has been working diligently. The timeline for acquisition is six to eight months, which is meteoric compared to our other acquisition processes. Once the city forecloses, the property can be made available for renovation. I am looking forward to significant increases in filings in 2024.
This current in rem process — we call it In Rem 1.0 — is when the liens exceed the assessed value of the vacant property or lot. For two neighborhoods in the district I represent, with a total of 455 vacant properties, 28% are currently eligible for In Rem 1.0, along with 56% of the 113 privately owned vacant lots.
On Jan. 22, I introduced, in partnership with the Scott administration, an expansion of the in rem process. In Rem 2.0 will allow the city to foreclose on the vacant property or vacant lot when the liens are in arrears and the value of the liens are below the assessed property value.
The city would have to pay the difference between the value and the liens in these cases. In the 14th District, out of the previously mentioned 455 vacant properties, an additional 35% of the vacant properties and 14% of the 131 vacant lots would fall under In Rem 2.0.
With the full complement of the in rem tools, the city could acquire almost 65% of the vacant properties in those two neighborhoods in my district and make them available for renovation. Many of them are on the same blocks, which will allow for the whole-block solution to this crisis. This also means that in the two neighborhoods, 80% of the vacant lots can be acquired and made available for redevelopment or community gardens, farms and more. The vacancy tax authorizing legislation introduced by Del. Boyce and Sen. Hayes at the state level would allow for even more vacant properties and vacant lots to be eligible for the in rem process.
Unlike tax sale or receivership, vacant properties that go through in rem do not need to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The city can make the properties available to development partners who have relationships with the community, or community members themselves, to help rebuild the neighborhood.
We must implement these tools right away. Our communities, especially those which have suffered the most, deserve better. Acquisition using In Rem 1.0 and In Rem 2.0 must occur quickly and strategically. Baltimore must continue to gain additional capacity in the form of lawyers, staff, technology and more to enhance acquisition and disposition. Creation of a Baltimore land bank, as I proposed last year, would also add capacity for acquisition using in rem, and swift and strategic disposition, allowing for an all-hands-on-deck and whole-block approach to scale up our efforts to make immediate and lasting change in our city.
Eliminating vacant properties through rehab, deconstruction or demolition will pay off. The challenges associated with vacant properties will dissipate, and we will increase the tax base with more properties coming back online. A recent study by Live Baltimore shows that renters want to be homeowners and stay in the city, while additional families want to move here.
This is an important moment for our city. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue the movement to combat vacant properties by working with my colleagues and all stakeholders to deliver results for our city.
Odette Ramos represents District 14 in the Baltimore City Council.