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Real Estate

Meet Baltimore’s most aggressive buyer of vacant rowhouses: ‘We’re helping here’

Gil Brenner pushed open the door of a vacant East Baltimore home and stepped into the darkness, past the feathery remains of a dead bird in a dank living room with mud-strewn carpet and rotted wall paneling.

The company where Brenner works, GNR Group, paid $43,000 for this home in Elwood Park, he said.

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“This is actually pretty good. It’s even better than pretty good. It’s great,” Brenner said before stepping on a soft spot and feeling the floor bend under his weight. “Whoa.”

GNR Group, a Philadelphia-based firm, appears to be the most aggressive homebuyer in Baltimore since 2019, according to an analysis of state data by The Baltimore Sun.

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Gil Brenner, GNR Property Management CEO, walks to a home in the 700 block of North Rose Street, one of the properties his company owns, on July 6, 2022.

Brenner, CEO of the firm’s property management wing, is proud of that. The company has been buying and renovating hundreds of vacant homes in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. The plan is to lease them to low-income Baltimoreans who get vouchers from the government to cover most of the rent.

To Brenner and GNR Group, the math is simple. There is a surplus of residents with housing choice vouchers who need good homes, there are investors who want consistent returns on their money, and there are thousands of empty rowhouses in Baltimore.

Housing advocates, however, say this approach runs counter to the intent of the voucher program by pushing the poorest residents into unstable neighborhoods with few social services or amenities.

Brenner frames it as an opportunity to transform neighborhoods and address the crisis of vacant buildings in Baltimore, where the official count of vacant houses hovers around 15,000 (though many developers say the actual number is higher).

The rotting homes are magnets for crime and Baltimore’s vacants catch fire at twice the national rate. Three firefighters were killed in January when a burning, vacant home collapsed.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott created a task force after the fire to recommend possible solutions.

Meanwhile, investors like GNR Group kept buying.

Asked about GNR Group and other investors buying and renovating vacants in Baltimore, Scott responded with a statement.

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“We want vacant properties brought back into productive use and put back onto the tax rolls, rather than just held by absent owners and becoming eyesores,” he said.

Del. Marlon Amprey as he campaigned outside an early voting site at the Public Safety Training Center in Baltimore.

Del. Marlon Amprey, a West Baltimore Democrat, represents several neighborhoods where GNR Group invests. He introduced a bill earlier this year to mandate a 90-day pause on any home purchase by large investors in Maryland to give individual homebuyers and small firms a chance to make competing offers. The legislation died in committee.

The idea was to create more balance in a housing market where investors can easily out-price the average homebuyer, said Amprey, who plans to introduce a similar bill in 2023.

“I am not against investors. I want people to invest in Maryland. I want people to invest in Baltimore. We need more people investing and companies coming to our city,” Amprey said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that the pathway to homeownership is available for every Marylander.”

As city and state officials discuss the best path forward, GNR Group isn’t slowing down.

Since 2019, Brenner said GNR Group has bought 350 vacant homes in Baltimore and has renovated about 140 of them. The plan is to eventually manage 1,000 rental homes in the city, he said.

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“You’ll see where we’ve already renovated. We have tenants, the street looks better,” Brenner said. “We’re helping here.”

Brenner said one of the few speed bumps he’s encountered came from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which administers the federal housing choice vouchers of city residents. Brenner said the housing authority has occasionally blocked some renovated homes from being rented to people using vouchers because one or more homes on that block were vacant.

A spokesperson for the housing authority acknowledged that the agency has excluded some of the homes owned by GNR Group from the housing choice voucher program.

“How do you want to remove those vacancies or occupy this block if you don’t allow me to put a tenant [there]?” Brenner said. “If you look from a higher level at this, you would say, ‘We as a city, we’re not allowing these companies — these private equity owners — to bring in their funds, their money from outside the city into the city and help improve the city, to help improve the streets and improve the blocks.”

There are tens of thousands of low-income people who probably meet the eligibility requirements for housing vouchers in Baltimore, where one-fifth of residents live below the poverty line. But the number of available vouchers depends almost entirely on limited funding from the federal government.

The housing authority stopped taking applications for the program more than five years ago because it hasn’t had enough money to help everyone who is eligible. Spokesperson Ingrid Antonio said there are 17,690 Baltimore households participating, with an additional 1,710 approved voucher holders actively searching for homes.

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Antonio said GNR Group has 113 properties in the housing choice voucher program.

She said the housing authority is looking for new landlords in neighborhoods with more amenities to participate in the program.

The Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, a nonprofit organization, has worked with GNR Group to place some voucher holders in homes owned by the firm.

“We absolutely support the investment in some of Baltimore’s historically neglected areas,” said Adria Crutchfield, the partnership’s CEO.

But Crutchfield said the nonprofit generally tries to avoid placing residents in the low-income neighborhoods that GNR Group is targeting.

“Those communities need much more than just the housing to come back online to be vibrant communities,” Crutchfield said. “Sure, fix up the housing. Then fix up everything else that needs to be fixed up.”

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The Housing Partnership wants to diversify neighborhoods, including places that have historically excluded poor and Black residents, Crutchfield said. The voucher program — also known as Section 8 in a reference to a portion of the federal law that created it — is about more than helping people pay rent, she said. It’s about access to good schools, public parks, better-paying jobs and social mobility.

Nneka N’namdi of Fight Blight Bmore surveyed the 500 block of North Carrollton Avenue in Harlem Park, where a cluster of four rowhouses were being rehabilitated across the street.

Nneka N’namdi, the founder of Fight Blight BMore, took a look at maps published by GNR Group of its properties in Philadelphia and Baltimore. She fears the company’s approach will have an effect similar to the “redlining” that occurred in the U.S. in the decades following World War II. That’s when racist policies in real estate financing concentrated poor, Black people in over-policed neighborhoods that lack quality schools, access to health care and retail shopping, N’namdi said.

The Elwood Park vacant home where Brenner stepped inside and felt the floor bend is in a census tract where nearly all the residents are Black and more than 40% live below the poverty line.

N’namdi agreed with Brenner that a “tidal wave of investment” could soon flood the city’s vacant housing market. But she predicted a more dire result, one where outside investors profit off poor, Black people pushed into neighborhoods that continue to languish.

“The money is coming,” N’namdi said. “The question is, ‘What is the elected class going to do?’”

Denise Frazier, who leads the acquisition strategy in Baltimore for GNR Group, said the city doesn’t seem to understand the value of its vacant homes and wasn’t ready for a rush of investors.

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Frazier and Brenner repeatedly drew parallels between Baltimore and Philadelphia, where GNR bought vacant homes for years until getting priced out.

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“We have properties that I bought for $15,000, let’s say [in] 2012, 2015, that are now worth like $200,000 and $300,000,” Frazier said. “We were a big contributor in building some of these blocks where people would not live in Philadelphia. Now, Philadelphia is in this huge [price] surge … I can’t buy anything for Philadelphia anymore. Literally, I can’t buy anything to invest.”

Frazier said Baltimore is the last good deal on the East Coast, and she already has seen a tripling in the price of vacant homes here. Vacants that sold for $10,000 a few years ago are fetching $30,000 and $40,000, Frazier said.

Denise Frazier, head of acquisitions, and Gil Brenner, GNR Property Management CEO, walk in the 600 block of North Robinson Street on July 6, 2022, after visiting one of the properties their company is developing.

GNR Group doesn’t plan to stop, and no neighborhood scares its staff.

Rahamim Haim scouts vacant homes for the company to buy. He regularly interacts with drug dealers and gangs and said he has found them generally polite and respectful.

Haim said he has discovered bodies at vacant homes on three occasions, including a corpse that was basically a skeleton, and he became a witness in a homicide case. He has fallen through rotted floors into basements and once went to a hospital after a nasty bite from a spider in a vacant home.

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“Philadelphia used to be like that. Now you see neighborhoods in Philadelphia are blooming,” Haim said. “And that’s what they see here — that it’s going to happen in Baltimore.”

Baltimore Sun data journalist Steve Earley contributed to this article.


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