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Differing views on housing problem; Tufaro favors tax cut to keep families from moving out of city; O'Malley focuses on safety

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One of the biggest tasks facing Baltimore's next mayor will be trying to slow and perhaps reverse the tide of migration that has seen some 90,000 residents pack up and move out of the city since 1990.

Republican nominee David F. Tufaro and Democrat Martin O'Malley offer different perspectives on how the city should persuade more families to remain and buy or rent homes in the city.

Tufaro, a developer from Roland Park, says the city's staggeringly high real estate taxes discourage home buyers. He advocates a 40 percent tax cut over four years -- bringing it to the level of Baltimore County -- to help stimulate the city's real estate market.

O'Malley, a city councilman from Northeast Baltimore and former prosecutor, argues that cracking down on drug dealing is more important. He points to Canton and Guilford as examples of neighborhoods where the real estate market has boomed despite high taxes because the streets are safe.

Beyond this philosophical difference, the two candidates share many beliefs about the problems that have left the city with some 40,000 vacant or abandoned houses.

Both said they would avoid demolishing single, vacant homes scattered in blighted areas around the city.

O'Malley says the city would more likely succeed by rebuilding whole blocks in depressed areas. Tufaro emphasizes focusing the city's limited resources on neighborhoods that have potential.

Both candidates say the city needs to improve public schools, halt the construction of billboards that tarnish neighborhoods and perhaps reintroduce a successful 1970s program that offered houses to people for $1 if they pledged to fix them and live in them for five years.

Commissioner resigning

Both will have to search for a new housing commissioner to replace Daniel P. Henson III, who is resigning after a six-year term notable for his demolition of high-rise public housing towers and thousands of vacant homes.

"It's a very complex subject, because it is impossible to deal with Baltimore's housing problem in isolation," said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which takes legal action to improve the city's housing. "You have to deal with a whole collection of other problems first -- the city's public schools, public safety and quality of life."

Tracy Gosson, director of a nonprofit organization called Live Baltimore that promotes homeownership in the city, said the next mayor should build on the city's successes.

Over the past two years, the city has approved grant and loan programs to help buyers with closing costs, and this appears to have helped boost sales, Gosson said.

Real estate agents sold 20 percent more houses (5,780) in the city last year than in 1997 (4,822). And they sold 7 percent more houses in the first half of this year than in the first half of last year, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a data bank used by real estate agents.

O'Malley said financial incentives won't persuade families to live in unsafe neighborhoods. He promises to dramatically change police policy to get officers out of cars and drug dealers off street corners.

"We already have tax incentives for homeownership in the city, but nobody wants to move into an area where they have drug dealers harassing them on the way to their homes," O'Malley said. "You could build the Taj Mahal, but if the neighborhood isn't safe, nobody would move into it."

Despite the city's high taxes compared to the surrounding suburban counties, home sales are strong in neighborhoods like Canton that are not overrun by drug dealers, O'Malley said.

Tufaro says he agrees that crime is important in driving people out of the city and wants police to work with community groups to create priority lists of what types of crimes they want police to crack down on. But Tufaro says O'Malley's approach is too simplistic and ignores the anger people feel about high taxes.

Rates in surrounding areas

The yearly taxes on a $100,000 home in Baltimore ($2,412) are 57 percent higher than in Anne Arundel County ($1,028 per year), up to 50 percent higher than in Howard County (from $1,216 to $1,340 per year) and 40 percent higher than in Baltimore County ($1,460 per year), according to municipal tax offices.

Baltimore's real estate taxes are high even compared to other depopulating industrial cities of a similar size. The city's taxes are 42 percent higher than in St. Louis (where the owner of a $100,000 home pays $1,388 a year) and 20 percent higher than in Cleveland ($1,915), according to tax offices in those cities.

"If you got rid of all of the crime in Baltimore, you'd still have all these vacant houses remaining in the city," Tufaro said. "You also have to significantly lower the tax rates and improve the schools to encourage people to live here."

Over four years, Tufaro wants to slice Baltimore's tax rate to about the level of St. Louis or Baltimore County.

To pay for the tax cut, Tufaro proposes putting city services such as trash collection up for bid, forcing city departments to compete with private companies.

Both candidates face a tough road. Although many neighborhoods along the waterfront and in North Baltimore remain strong, the population has declined from 905,759 in 1970 to 645,593 last year, according to the U.S. Census.

O'Malley and Tufaro disagree about the demolition of high-rise public housing.

O'Malley locked horns with Henson on a number of issues during O'Malley's eight-year tenure on the City Council, but he applauded Henson's decision to demolish and replace the city's high-rise projects with townhouse-style public housing.

'Dungeons of hopelessness'

"These high-rises are no places to raise kids," O'Malley said. "They have become dungeons of hopelessness and crime. It's self-evident that they should be removed."

Tufaro says the city is wasting federal housing grants by demolishing high-rise buildings and rebuilding them with a smaller number of low-rise units. He argues the city could use its housing money more efficiently if it renovated the older public housing units -- Broadway Towers and Hollander Ridge, for example -- and maintained them in the future.

"The city has gotten slap-happy with demolition," said Tufaro. "It is far, far less costly to rehabilitate buildings of this type than to demolish and build new housing. Demolishing these buildings is really a drastic approach to solving a management problem."

This position has made Tufaro unpopular among some public housing residents who look forward to moving into new townhouses. When he expressed his opposition to the demolition of the Broadway Towers recently, a group of residents booed him.

Candidates' plans

O'Malley's plans include:

Urging local banks to invest millions more dollars in redeveloping city neighborhoods through more vigorous enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in lending.

Replacing demolished rowhouses with larger homes and open space, catering to the tastes of contemporary home-buyers.

Considering separating the city's Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Community Development, which some have argued have conflicting goals. The former is devoted to providing housing for the poor; the latter also tries to encourage economic development.

Tufaro's housing plans include:

Cutting down on the number of liquor stores and bars in the city because, he says, they encourage loitering and petty crimes that lead to neighborhood decay.

Using the city's depopulation as an opportunity to create more parks and even tree farms in the city.

Using historic preservation districts and tax credits to boost real estate values.

Pub Date: 10/22/99

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