Have a buck? Then you may soon be able to afford a vacant rowhome in many Baltimore neighborhoods.

The offer sounds like a steal, reminiscent of the famed 1970s Dollar House program that helped rebuild Baltimore neighborhoods like Otterbein. But city housing officials have stressed that their plan today is narrower — applying to a small fraction of Baltimore’s thousands of vacant properties.

At the same time, City Council members and housing advocates have urged Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to pump the brakes, arguing that, while well-intentioned, their strategy remains half-baked and could disadvantage the low-income homeowners the city is aiming to support.

The fixed-price proposal, which is expected to get a vote before Baltimore’s mayor-controlled spending board on Wednesday, would lock in low prices for a subset of city-owned vacant properties — some at just $1.

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A decision on the policy by the Board of Estimates has been postponed a few times already. Council President Nick Mosby, a critic of the proposal, first delayed a vote, while Scott opted to hold it for another meeting earlier this month following additional concerns raised by Councilwoman Odette Ramos.

Don’t call it ‘dollar homes’

Baltimore’s proposed fixed pricing policy shouldn’t be equated to the Dollar House program the city deployed in the 1970s, Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Alice Kennedy told The Baltimore Banner earlier this month. For one, the ’70s program was coupled with federal funding that allowed for low-interest home renovation loans, backing the city doesn’t have today.

Kennedy doesn’t expect the new program will replicate the original’s impact, but the policy would make some homes available to Baltimore residents for just $1.

Under the policy’s tiered system, private developers and large nonprofits purchasing through the city’s Buy Into Bmore database would pay $3,000 dollars for a vacant house, smaller nonprofits would pay $1,000 and individual homeowners and community land trusts could acquire properties for the nominal price of $1.

While advocates and City Council members have raised concern about the implementation of the pricing scheme, Kennedy has painted it as just “one piece of the puzzle” in the city’s broader strategy for combating vacancy. Housing officials argued this month that its fixed pricing schedule would streamline sales of the city-owned vacant properties and make the process more transparent, eliminating the often lengthy negotiation process with buyers.

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According the Department of Housing and Community Development, the city has around 260 properties in the pipeline that it plans to sell using the fixed price scheme. While Baltimore has pursued a suite of measures in recent years tackle vacancy — including an ambitious, multibillion blight abatement plan announced by the mayor in December — the city owns less than a tenth of the thousands of vacant buildings around Baltimore.

The proposal before the Board of Estimates merely sets new listing prices for a small share of the city’s vacant property inventory, sales that would be subject to the same buyer vetting process the housing department already has in place, Kennedy said.

Though the pricing schedule applies specifically to the small share of properties available in the online database, housing department spokeswoman Tammy Hawley noted in an email that the agency could negotiate “the same” or “similar” pricing for the transfers of other vacant properties. Just how many properties the city might try to sell using the fixed prices isn’t clear.

Eliana Wharton and brother Christopher Wharton play outside of a vacant home on West Saratoga street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on February 16, 2023.
Eliana Wharton and brother Christopher Wharton play outside of a vacant home on West Saratoga street during a press conference hosted by Build One Baltimore on Feb. 16, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Housing activists concerned

Housing officials say they have been workshopping and discussing their proposed fixed price system with community members for close to two years. But since the policy first appeared on the Board of Estimates agenda last month, the Scott administration’s approach has drawn blowback from some housing advocates and members of the City Council, prompting a flurry of letters between both sides in the last two weeks.

Mosby, whose own effort to revive the ’70s-era Dollar House program foundered in committee two years ago, has argued that the Scott administration’s policy needs to do more to prioritize ownership for longtime Baltimore residents. Mosby would also like commitments to fund home repairs.

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Ramos, meanwhile, has criticized Scott’s housing department over the confusing and opaque rollout of the dollar house proposal. In a Monday letter to housing officials, the councilwoman reiterated “serious concerns” with the policy. She has argued that the policy must be paired with financial assistance for resident homebuyers, and said the approach of selling off one vacant at a time could set new owners up for failure if they are surrounded by other blighted properties.

Others, like Nneka N’namdi with Fight Blight Bmore, have similarly voiced concern that the fixed price policy won’t be accessible to low-income residents without financial support for renovations. The agency requires residents to have at least $90,000 in available funding to rehab a property.

N’namdi has also expressed skepticism about the city’s ability to weed out speculators and negligent buyers from the purchasing process. “Price matters,” N’namdi told council members at a hearing earlier this month, but the intricacies of how the city implements its new price scheme matter even more.

Housing officials have noted that they have a vetting policy in place already to get properties into the hands of responsible developers, including criteria that bars sales to buyers who have not developed a vacant in their possession for longer than two years. The proposed fixed price policy caps buyers at 12 properties, while buyers would be required to redevelop homes for residential use within a year of acquisition.

In response to criticisms, during the program’s first three months, housing officials will prioritize Baltimore residents who intend to buy and rehab vacants as their primary home. Scott also sent a letter ahead of the last Board of Estimates meeting outlining several steps the administration plans to take to safeguard the process, including public tracking and reporting commitments.

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Whether preference will be given to city residents once future properties are added to the sale database isn’t clear.

Can dollar homes make a difference?

Mary Miller, a senior fellow with the Johns Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative and a past candidate for mayor, said any policy that lowers the barrier to entry for acquiring and rehabbing a vacant property should be considered. Right now, the economic incentives for fixing vacant homes simply don’t work, largely because the gulf between the costs of fixing up a building and selling it — often described as the “appraisal gap” — is just too wide, Miller noted.

Still, Miller, who co-authored a 2022 paper on the costs of tackling vacant housing in Baltimore, said the money the city is forgoing by setting such low sale prices shouldn’t be taken for granted. Her paper found that the average cost of acquiring a vacant home in Baltimore, through public or private channels, falls between $10,000 and $40,000.

At the same time, the city’s proposed fixed-price policy would waive existing debts for unpaid property taxes and water and sewer bills on the properties it’s selling, and Miller questioned how much total property tax base the city would be writing off in the process.

Cracking down on speculators and negligent vacant owners has long been a challenge for the city, Miller noted. “The city’s giving up a lot” and “conveying a great benefit” by lowering the barrier to buy a vacant home. In return, she said the city should “get a lot of accountability” to ensure that properties are actually getting fixed up.

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Even though the city has fewer than 300 properties lined up for sale in the vacant program, N’namdi argued the policy’s impacts could be far-reaching. For one, it’s not clear how many more properties the city could try to sell using the fixed-price scheme down the line.

And depending on who buys a vacant — an out-of-state speculator or a resident with with roots in the neighborhood — the purchase could have ripple effects that make or break a block, said N’namdi. It only takes one or two properties to “start a landslide of displacement” or “open up a door for reclamation,” she said.

While Miller said lowering the costs of acquiring a vacant home is a smart step, she predicted the impacts of the city’s policy would be minor. The approach only applies to the small fraction of vacant properties in the city’s hands, while the gap between the costs of renovation and assessed property values remains steep.

“If you can’t attack the problem writ large, you’re not going to move the needle here,” she said.

Reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this story.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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