Try something new

IF BALTIMORE truly wants to combat the alarming scourge of vacant houses, it needs more than Mayor Martin O'Malley's bold attempt to take over thousands of them in a concentrated sweep. A permanent and predictable mechanism must be created to return derelict structures to constructive economic use and to the tax rolls.

The payoff could be huge.


Scofflaw owners of 6,892 vacant properties owe the city a whopping $63.3 million in unpaid property taxes, liens and penalties. (At least 7,000 additional properties are vacant, but their owners have kept up their payments.)

Each year, the city collects some of that money at a tax sale. Much of it comes from speculators, who engage in bidding wars over choice properties, buying an option to seek foreclosure if the owners fail to pay up. By contrast, hundreds of ordinary rowhouses - and empty lots - go unbid. Because of that, the city does not receive a penny for them; instead, these derelicts end up as liabilities of the city.


Eighteen months ago, Mayor O'Malley set the goal of acquiring 5,000 abandoned properties for redevelopment. This was a laudable one-time push. But those acquisitions are still wending their way through foreclosure petitions and other legal rigmarole.

All this underscores what is wrong with the current process: It is so costly and time-consuming that even the city has avoided foreclosure petitions for real estate of questionable value. Moreover, the outcome remains in doubt up to the last minute because a property owner can at any time stop foreclosure by paying up.

There must be an easier way to get rid of the chronic vacant house problem.

Baltimore - and the urbanized Maryland counties that are starting to share the same problem - ought to look to Michigan for answers. There, the tax process has been streamlined throughout the state.

In Michigan, a property that has been tax-delinquent for a year is forfeited to the local jurisdiction's treasurer. If the owner fails to redeem it within another year, it automatically goes to the Circuit Court for foreclosure. The owner still has 21 days to pay the back taxes. But if that doesn't happen, clear title to the property passes to the state, which sells it at public auction in a final sale.

Baltimore may not want to copy the Michigan example exactly, but it illustrates that there are ways to more quickly deal with the vacant house problem, if the political will exists.

An epidemic of vacant houses is dragging down many Baltimore neighborhoods. They are also a tremendous burden on taxpayers, creating fire hazards and crime problems.

The current remedies clearly don't work; after decades, the abandonment problem has only grown worse. It's time to try fresh approaches.