Baltimore again backs house sales


For the third year in a row, Baltimore is trying a different gambit to attract homeowners to older neighborhoods where once well-kept streets have begun to slip into disrepair.

The latest strategy to restore luster to fading neighborhoods has the city offering incentives to help owners sell houses that have been on the market for some time.

Housing officials are teaming up with real estate agents to auction off about 50 privately owned houses in six middle-class neighborhoods.

This year's sale is a marked departure from the past two vaunted auctions designed to get boarded-up city-owned properties renovated and back on the tax rolls. Both of the city's earlier ambitious efforts to attract new owners for its growing inventory of vacant houses faltered.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the previous auctions were hindered by complications involving property appraisals, income verifications and the extensive renovations required for houses that were little more than vacant shells.

"Last time, we went to the hard-core vacant properties," he said. "This year, we're trying to market specific neighborhoods. I think Baltimore has a lot of fabulous opportunities for people to live. What we're trying to do here is bring that to the attention of people who might want to live in the city."

Baltimore is kicking off the third auction at a neighborhood festival May 6 at City College, but doesn't plan to offer the houses until June. The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors is going through its lists of houses that have been on the market for 90 days or longer to find at least 50 suitable properties.

Traditional brick rowhouses and eclectic freestanding houses line many of the streets in Baltimore-Linwood, Callaway-Garrison, Edgewood, Waverly, Better Waverly and Mid-Govans. But all six neighborhoods have begun to show signs of decay, from the first boarded-up houses to overgrown lots and a growing number of rental properties.

As a result, the city has designated these mid- to outer-city neighborhoods "conservation areas" and is attempting to stabilize them by offering extra public improvements, loans and grants to boost homeownership, school repairs, business services and the like.

"We're concentrating on these areas because they are not teetering yet, but without some special assistance they could," Mr. Henson said.

Houses in the six neighborhoods generally sell for $40,000 to $60,000, according to statistics provided by the real-estate association. The city will chip in $5,000 to $7,500 toward the closing and settlement costs for each house, depending on the buyer's income. The program could cost the city roughly $300,000 in community block grants.

A 'kick start to the market'

The auction offers opportunities to owners who have tried to sell their homes for months, buyers looking for a good deal and an overall "kick start to the market," said Christine A. Vasiliou, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke touted the benefits of a partnership with real-estate agents and the chance to promote city neighborhoods, but others were skeptical.

"I guess it could be seen as helping people to buy in the city," said 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes.

ZTC "However, if these are not city-owned properties but privately owned homes, I think it would be an unfair advantage for people who are trying to sell the homes," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stokes was more optimistic than he was about last April's auction of vacant houses, owned by the city and state, that resulted in only 52 of 125 being sold.

Thirteen of the successful bidders failed to qualify for mortgages or gave up on the program, while another 13 still are waiting for renovations promised by the city.

In the end, the city spent nearly $4 million renovating 42 of the houses, which were sold for $1.8 million. The average renovation bill, paid by the city mostly with block grants, was $94,000, and several houses had to be rebuilt for more than $100,000.

"I think that is a disturbing spending ratio," Mr. Stokes said. "I would rather we not spend our money that way. It might make more sense to do new construction in such areas."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Mr. Henson have acknowledged that the last two auctions ultimately failed to live up to expectations. Last year's effort was dogged by renovation problems and red tape, and a complex foreclosure process resulted in only 350 of 1,500 vacant houses being sold in a highly touted tax sale in the spring of 1993.

Asked about spending $100,000 to fix some of the houses in neighborhoods where the average selling price is half that, Mr. Henson agreedthe repairs proved expensive. But, he added, "What were my options? I think if we were able to get 50 of them to close and able to get families into them, I think it's a major victory."

Mrs. Clarke called last year's auction "disappointing," but said she's more hopeful about the new approach.

"If we let the neighborhoods and the Realtors do the basic planning, we'll get it right and capitalize on the vitality of the neighborhoods," she said.

However, the council president, who is challenging Mayor Schmoke's bid for a third term, has continued to criticize his administration for failing to develop a comprehensive strategy for the growing inventory of boarded-up houses. The city, she said, has been forced into "demolition by neglect."

No single strategy seen

Mr. Schmoke shrugged off her remarks, saying he's devised a number of approaches to turn around blocks scarred by the first boarded-up houses. As many as 1,041 blocks now have at least one vacant property, most privately owned.

"I don't think you can have a single cookie-cutter model," he said. "We're trying as many different strategies as we can."

Among them are a plan to renovate 600 boarded-up houses in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and a citywide initiative to tear down crumbling, abandoned properties.

Fewer than 40 of the 600 houses in Sandtown-Winchester have been repaired in the two years since Mr. Schmoke pledged to see to it that every one was renovated or demolished. But the city now has acquired the bulk of the properties, Mr. Henson said, and work is expected to start within months.

In East Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital has teamed with the city in an undertaking that includes housing, education and medical programs, new streets, business incentives and job training for the more than 47,000 people living in 180 square blocks.

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