Community activists packed City Hall Wednesday evening to call on the Pugh administration to revive the city's decades-old "Dollar Homes" program — saying it could once again be the tool needed to revitalize some of Baltimore's struggling neighborhoods.
Dozens of advocates and City Council members decried the city's lack of progress in addressing thousands of vacant properties. They argued past mayoral administrations have subsidized glittering waterfront developments while not showing the same urgency for rehabilitating smaller properties in neighborhoods.
"Baltimore wants to fix itself," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who called for the hearing by the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. "We want to fix us. This is one way everyone understands we can do it. It's not as grand and glorious as a multi-acre development."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Baltimore officials under then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer sold rundown houses for $1 and helped finance rehabilitation of the properties through low-interest loans if owners agreed to live in the homes for a specified period of time. This effort is often credited with helping revitalize neighborhoods such as Otterbein and Ridgely's Delight.
Clarke said the program was successful in temporarily combating vacant properties, but it is now needed again. Baltimore has thousands of vacant buildings, ranging anywhere from more than 16,000 to more than 46,000, depending on who's counting. More than 10,000 are owned by the city government.
Tyrone W. Bost, president of BPPW Piping and Pipe Welding LLC, is leading an advocacy group called HOMES that is pushing for the program to be restored.
He testified that the city and state government are too focused on tearing down vacants rather than rehabbing them. The rehabbing of the city's vacants could provide much-needed jobs for unemployed residents, he said.
"This is truly a grass-roots program," he said, gesturing to the packed room. "The citizens of Baltimore want this. .. .The drug dealers shouldn't be the biggest employer in the neighborhood."
But officials from the Pugh administration attempted to throw cold water on the proposal. They argued that federal funds needed to finance redevelopment are no longer available and that current efforts of city government have surpassed the "Dollar House" program.
Julie Day, chief of staff at Baltimore's housing department, said the city is addressing vacant properties through its Vacants to Value program.
"The $1 house program existed at a time of generous federal funding, which we all know is lacking at the moment," Day said. "We sell properties for $1 all the time. We have given properties away."
She said the "Dollar Homes" program is remembered fondly, but said that is in part a marketing achievement.
"We've come up with only 183 houses that were sold through the program. It is a legendary program in many ways," she said. "We sell on average 150 vacant properties a year."
Today, housing officials try to stabilize blocks of homes in specific city neighborhoods, rather than simply selling individual homes anywhere in Baltimore.
"We strive for a full-block outcome," she said. "If you pick a single vacant in a block full of vacants, we're going to steer you away from that."
In written testimony submitted to the council, Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman said the city no longer owns large clusters of vacant homes close to downtown. But, he said, officials have used other strategies to try to combat vacancies.
He said 1,400 vacant properties have been rehabbed since 2010 through so-called "Community Development Clusters" — in which the city sells groups of vacants to a nonprofit or a developer — and 2,500 have been rehabbed through "Streamlined Code Enforcement Neighborhoods," in which the city targets vacants in otherwise stable neighborhoods for fines that often lead to the city's taking control of the property.
"The Dollar House Program was a great program for its time and place," he wrote. "Baltimore has changed in the intervening years and so have the strategies by which blight is combated."
During her mayoral campaign, Mayor Catherine Pugh endorsed Schaefer's "Dollar House" program as a success she'd like to emulate. In her housing plan, Pugh wrote that she wanted to "provide imaginative tax incentives for developers and individuals (The $1 house program worked)."
Pugh said in an interview that federal loans that helped fund the "Dollar Homes" rehabs are no longer available. But she said the city is coming up with new ideas, like those cited by Braverman, to cut down on vacants.
"We just don't have the federal dollars like we did," she said.
But Pugh said she liked the marketing idea behind "Dollar Homes," which she said captured potential residents' imagination.
"We could create that same kind of synergy," she said. "It's how we market and promote the opportunities we have."
Even without the same level of federal funds, Bost said the city has resources at its disposal. He pointed to Project CORE — a state-financed $75 million program for demolishing vacant properties — and a $660 million tax-increment-financing deal for the Port Covington development as evidence that funding streams are available.
"If you've got money to tear down houses, the money is there," he said. "We found $660 million for Port Covington. I don't have a problem with that. But let's throw a bone to the working citizen."
Clarke's resolution stressed that any renewed "Dollar Homes" program should employ Baltimoreans.
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"Pairing these homeownership incentives with construction job training and apprenticeship programs in the targeted neighborhoods could simultaneously provide the two things most needed to turn lives around there — affordable housing and access to meaningful well-paying work," she wrote.
Councilman John Bullock, chairman of the committee, said he took note of how many people were excited about rehabbing vacant properties.
"I know there's so much interest in this subject. We know vacancy and blight is a huge challenge for our city," he said. "We have to be creative in our approach."
As he finished his testimony, Bost said he predicted great success if city officials would take a chance on reviving the program.
"Not only do I think this will be a success, I think there will have to be a lottery for those houses," he said. "Just throw us a bone. Throw the working-class person a bone."