Uphill battle to rid the city of vacant properties

Housing officials have sold more of the city's vacant homes in the first seven months of the budget year than in all of the previous year — but the sales still represent fewer than 3 percent of the 4,000 empty houses owned by the city.

As housing advocates, community leaders and developers gather today for a day-long summit on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's "Vacants to Value" program, data from the city housing department indicate that despite incremental gains, officials are far from making a dent in the city's 30,000 vacant properties.

Since the multi-pronged strategy was unveiled three months ago, housing officials have created a website to showcase vacant properties, started a Facebook fan page, and sold 57 homes from city rosters.

"It takes a little while to reach speed," said Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman.

The biggest challenge for the city is dealing with the 10,000 vacant structures that are past the point of rehabilitation and must be demolished, Braverman said. With the cost of razing a single home in the tens of thousands of dollars, the cash-strapped city cannot afford to take down many homes.

More than 600 people have signed up to attend the summit today at the Baltimore Convention Center, Deputy Housing Commissioner Julie Day said. Speakers are scheduled to discuss how to buy a property from the city, incentives for new homebuyers, and national and historical perspectives on vacant homes.

As Baltimore's population continues to decline — Census figures released Wednesday showed the city lost 30,000 residents in the past decade — vacant properties are likely to remain a problem.

Rawlings-Blake touts her approach as key to revitalizing neighborhoods, and expounded on it during her State of the City speech earlier this week. She is slated to welcome summit attendees and discuss incentives that can sharply decrease property taxes for homebuyers.

Rawlings-Blake rejected the idea of creating a quasi-public land bank backed by her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, in favor of overhauling the city's procedures for dealing with vacants.

Rawlings-Blake laid off Dixon's boyfriend, Edward Anthony, who had headed the housing department's disposition section, and promoted Day to supervise the sale of vacant properties.

She also streamlined procedures to speed the sale of vacant properties. Officials aim to reduce the average time from bid to sale from 300 to 100 days, housing department spokeswoman Cheron Porter said.

The city has sold 119 vacant homes since July, 19 more than in all of last year. Officials aim to sell 150 vacant properties this year, Porter said.

Housing officials now are marketing about 280 homes on a revamped website with detailed descriptions and photos, similar to sites managed by private real estate agents. Since it went live, the city has sold four homes from the site, at prices ranging from $5,500 to $25,000, officials said.

"It's been really fun watching how much interest there is in this process," said Day. "We've been getting interesting questions and comments [on the web site], how to access the property, what are the next steps."

Meanwhile, code enforcement officers have slapped $900 citations on about 230 vacant properties, according to Braverman. Officials hope to compel absentee owners to fix up or sell vacant properties in otherwise healthy neighborhoods by assessing stiff penalties. Another 400 citations are pending, Braverman said.

At the summit, housing experts are scheduled to discuss the strategies used over the years to deal with vacant properties in the city, including the homes sold for $1 by the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer.



The "Vacants to Value" summit was misidentified in earlier versions of this article. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad