Confiscating abandoned houses


An unusual auction took place recently on the steps of the Clarence E. Mitchell Courthouse. Four abandoned houses, removed from their owners and ordered into receivership by the District Court, were auctioned to developers eager to rehabilitate them into residential units.

This kind of legal redistribution of vacant houses will become a routine procedure in coming months. A total of 71 other vacant houses are to be auctioned by Save A. Neighborhood Inc., a non-profit organization the Community Law Center created to help the court dispose of vacant problem houses under a new city receivership law.

The Community Law Center is using this new weapon quite successfully. In 1992, the law center began filing law suits under a municipal ordinance which allows the city to petition the court for appointment of a receiver for abandoned houses with oustanding vacant building violation notices.

The four houses were typical of the other cases in the pipeline. One was owned by a Panamanian corporation with no local address. Another was owned by a person with a Virginia post office box as a mailing address. The post office had never heard of him. The two others were houses with similarly unclear ownership situations. In each case, the court felt it was in the community's best interest to strip the original owners of the properties so they can be transferred to people willing to rehabilitate them.

This is an intriguing strategy by the Community Law Center, which has been providing a variety of legal and other technical services to more than 200 non-profit groups since its 1986 inception. The CLC uses receivership suits as a last resource. "Normally, if we can locate an owner, we are able to work out a solution without the receiver's sale," says the center's director, Anne Blumenberg.

Vacant houses are a problem of such magnitude in Baltimore City that new weapons to combat it are welcome. Ownership is a right. But it carries a responsibility that should not be abandoned.

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