On warm summer evenings, Bradley Scott likes to sit on his porch, tend to his plants and strike up conversations with passersby in Central Park Heights, where he bought his house in 1979.
He’s put his heart into the house. But years ago, without his knowledge, Baltimore officials incorporated his small lot into a master redevelopment plan for Park Heights that spans more than a dozen acres, a $100 million project that will add new housing and reinvigorate the neighborhood with parks and other community anchors.
The city’s housing department spent years working to get Scott to leave his home. When traditional outreach methods failed, it condemned and took ownership of his home while he kept living there. Now the city wants to give it back, but Scott and his family don’t want to even acknowledge it was ever taken and have refused to sign the documents.
With the first phase of the community redevelopment project now underway, the long dispute between Scott and the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development represents a larger dilemma facing this city and others like it: How do you make improvements to a neighborhood without forcing out the people who never left?
Residents all around Baltimore have been relocated to make way for modern multifamily and mixed-use projects meant to entice a new generation of residents. The city has broad jurisdiction to take control of properties designated for public use. Typically, homeowners are advised to negotiate the best possible price and walk away to avoid costly litigation that likely won’t end well.
While some have welcomed such offers, others, like Scott, have resisted the city.
“This house is my life,” Scott said. “My whole life.”
Officials first contacted Scott in 2014, informing him they wanted to buy his home, according to documents The Baltimore Sun obtained through a public records request. It didn’t sit well with the 73-year-old veteran, whose mobility is limited due to a debilitating work-related injury.
Officials offered Scott $53,000 to buy the home he purchased for $24,750 in 1979. They also said they would relocate him to a new home and give him $322,000 for a “comparable replacement home” worth $375,000. They also offered moving expenses and a dislocation allowance of $1,900, and explored rental options.
Scott, who lives with his son, Taavon Speller, his brother, Kerry Scott, and his cousin, LaRhonda Leigh Carter, did not accept the city’s offer and eventually stopped returning the city’s emails, letters and phone calls about it. So, officials condemned the house — citing its apartment-style layout and his refusal to respond to the offer, records show. The city assumed the title in November 2015, writing him a check for the $53,000.
But they didn’t move, and he never cashed the check.
Scott and his family contend the city misrepresented how essential their home was to the project. Six years after the city first contacted him about buying the house, Baltimore and the Scott family remain at an impasse, but with a twist.
By 2018, the city determined that relocating Scott and his family was too expensive and offered to return the house to his name, saying it was no longer necessary to the redevelopment.
To get the house back, Scott would need to endorse and deposit the city’s original $53,000 check — which remains in the court’s possession — and use it to buy the house back. He also must sign a contract known as a land disposition agreement that lays out the terms of the sale.
Carter, Scott’s cousin who he gave his power of attorney to in 2018, argues that signing the check and the contract would mean the family acknowledges that a real estate transaction took place when they never authorized one in the first place.
In emails included in the public records request, a lawyer with the city’s housing department told the family the contract must be signed to “memorialize” the land disposition agreement before the city can deed the property back to Scott, since the transaction must be approved by the city’s spending board.
Carter still refuses to sign, and has explored relitigating the condemnation, but a judge sided with the city in 2015 when the matter first went to court. Since Scott did not appeal the ruling, the statute of limitations for the condemnation case has long since expired.
“We have told them we want the house back in the same manner they took it,” Carter said.
She wants the city to waive the contract requirement or revise the language in a way that feels nonthreatening to the family. Carter said the city should make an exception for Scott, who represents Baltimore’s best. The house had not previously been condemned; he’s paid off his mortgage; and he has sheltered friends and family going through tough times for free.
Tammy Hawley, a spokesperson with the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said the city’s proposal would restore Scott’s ownership at no cost, and the family would not be liable for the taxes or water bills accrued since 2015. The city “did explore other options” outside of the contract, she added, but “selling the property is the only feasible option at this time.”
Nneka N’namdi, creator of the social justice advocacy group Fight Blight Bmore, said she understands the family’s reluctance to trust the city’s process.
“This is about more than money; this is about family legacy, community continuity, the intangibles,” she said. “The owner is likely holding on because this is indicative of what has been done particularly and specifically in Black communities to exploit our land ownership repeatedly.”
N’namdi said condemnation, in general, is a tool that disproportionately displaces Black people and diminishes generational wealth transfer.
“Who benefits primarily from the use of these tools? White businesses, institutions and urban neocolonialists,” she said.
Still, attorneys who have handled other condemnation and eminent domain cases said the city has all the leverage now.
“The best point of negotiation is early,” said Raymond D. Burke, a shareholder at the Baltimore-based Baker Donelson law firm. “Because the city owns the property, it has the upper hand.”
Burke said the family’s unwillingness to leave could have given them an advantage in negotiations had they jumped at the chance in 2014, ahead of any other families who were in the process of relocating. Now, they must live adjacent to a major construction project that could last years. And, at any moment, the city could evict them.
Further complicating matters, the property, listed under the ownership of the mayor and the City Council, is now in the hands of Scott’s cousin, Brandon Scott, a Park Heights native who was elected mayor in November and sworn in Dec. 8. Scott spokesperson Stefanie Mavronis said he has not directly intervened to avoid implicating himself in a potential conflict of interest.
Katherine Taylor, who founded the Howard County-based Taylor Legal law firm, said though she understands the family’s perspective, the dispute would be an expensive one for them to keep pursuing. Yet, the family has posed a valid question, she said.
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“The whole purpose of condemnation is for the government to take someone’s land for public necessity, and they’re admitting now that there’s no public necessity,” she said. “If there’s no public necessity, what happens?”
The threat of being forced to leave at any moment weighs heavily on Carter. She has poured her soul into research and letter writing, which has taken a toll on her career running a mobile shoe business. It also demoralizes Scott, who said he just wants to be left alone.
Sharon Green Middleton, a Democrat who represents Scott and Carter in Baltimore’s 6th District and serves as vice president of the City Council, said she tried to help her constituents, but was unsuccessful in meeting them in person.
The city has negotiated several “wonderful” deals for other Park Heights residents, she said. She does not know of other relocation disputes that have taken as long to resolve, but she hopes the family comes around soon.
“It’s a long, drawn-out, very expensive process, and it should be noted that the city has one of the best relocation deals around the country,” she said. “The city seems to be really wanting to help and she just won’t sign anything.”
Scott and Carter said they haven’t heard from the city in several months.
In the meantime, they’ll continue going about their business, minding time as it passes on their front porch, and holding fast to the hope that they can stay awhile longer.