The Rev. Romaine Giles walks slowly past the litter on the sidewalk of the 1000 block of N. Broadway. Across town, Tiffani Brown peers through soot caked on a basement window of a rowhouse at Druid Hill Avenue and Islamic Way.
Both women are scouting for bargains among the 1,500 vacant and abandoned houses that the city is preparing to auction this week as the Schmoke administration seeks a fresh start for neighborhoods that would otherwise remain blighted and ignored.
These houses will be sold Wednesday at a special tax auction that begins at 9 a.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center. To make the houses attractive to bidders, the city is not requiring buyers to pay any liens that the city holds on them -- including tax liens. As a result, the lowest bids on the properties will be the amount due for state property taxes plus an $85 administrative fee.
A successful bidder must go to court to obtain a judgment against the prior owner in favor of the city for the back taxes within six months from the date of the tax sale certificate. The judgment is necessary so that the city can go after the prior owner to recover the money represented by the liens.
The buyers must also bring the properties up to code standards.
The houses are scattered all over the city. In West Baltimore, for example, about 17 rowhouses in the 1500 block of Leslie St. are for sale -- nearly the entire block -- and 27 houses are available along a 15-block stretch of North Mount Street. About 37 houses are for sale along North Avenue.
Ms. Brown hopes the auction will enable her to become a first-time homeowner.
"If the city's just going to let them sit, why not let us have them?," said Ms. Brown, a 23-year-old nursing student who grew up in Harford County. "I want to become a homeowner. The interest is personal, to own something and utilize the space. It's a chance to get in touch with the city."
Between classes, Ms. Brown has been house shopping for weeks. But she fell in love with a dilapidated rowhouse in the 1400 block of McCulloh St. She recently sat on the front steps and imagined how she would decorate the house after purchasing it.
Ms. Brown stands to save quite a bit by purchasing the house through the auction. City records show the house's assessed value at $4,960 -- $1,000 for the building and $3,960 for the land.
At the special auction, bidding on the McCulloh Street house will start at $89.16 -- the $85 auction fee plus $4.16 in unpaid state taxes. If the house had been auctioned at the city's regular tax sale, the buyer would be responsible for liens totaling $49,889.
"I'm willing to put in the work for it," Ms. Brown said of the enormous amount of renovation that needs to be done. "You have a city full of vacant houses, and look at this, it is pretty nice. We're talking about people who want to invest in the city. There's no better way."
Ms. Giles wants to purchase as many as three dilapidated rowhouses in the 1000 block of N. Broadway, in East Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood, to create a mission for homeless men -- a dream she's had for 25 years.
The houses she's looking at are in a deserted and trash-strewn area close to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Under the special program, the bidding on each of the three houses will start at $99. The assessed value of each property is about $4,960, state records show.
"I've been passing by, and I said, 'I'm going to get some of those buildings,' " the minister said. "I said I'm going to put it on the altar and ask God to speak to somebody's heart, and I believe this is my day."
She plans to mobilize church members from the New Pentecostal Holiness Apostolic Outreach Ministry, relatives and friends to rehabilitate the buildings -- now unwanted shells littered with liquor bottles.
"When I see these vacants, it bothers me because we have people out on the street and the buildings are looking at us. They say to me, 'Why don't you get out here and do something about it?' " she said.
"If I had a team of people, we could go through this city and turn people's minds back. We could work on upgrading this city -- give people something to know that they are worthy of living. I feel like I have to be their big sister."