Cephas Richardson wanted to refinance a house along Lorraine Avenue in Charles Village. But instead of calling a bank, he called a number he saw on one of the "We Buy Houses" signs in the neighborhood.
Richardson was told he could get a $100,000 refinance. All he had to do was show up at a building on Mulberry Street with $5,000 in cash. "I never went," said the vice bishop of Greater Jerusalem Church in Waverly.
Richardson eventually got a $65,000 loan from a reputable lender and didn't let his house slip through his fingers. But housing advocates say that many others in Baltimore are falling victim to businesses that offer quick cash to the financially desperate in exchange for their homes.
Yesterday, housing advocates mounted a drive to put a stop to such operations, seizing more than 300 illegal signs that offer to buy homes for cash.
"If you are putting up these signs, it's time to stop," said Kristine Dunkerton, executive director of the Community Law Center, whose organization has helped remove more than 900 signs in the past two months.
The small cardboard and plastic signs are placed on roadsides, utility poles and private property. Their messages are similar: "CA$H 4 HOMES," "We Buy Houses ... Cash," "I BUY HOMES." According to homeowners advocates, the signs promote predatory real estate practices, conning financially vulnerable residents to give up their homes for pennies on the dollar.
"I'm tired of being lied to ... and seeing poor people being taken advantage of," said Ralph E. Moore Jr., who sits on the board that oversees St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a nonprofit agency that helps save homeowners from foreclosure.
Advocates got a head start yesterday on a city bill, which takes effect next month, that allows residents to remove "bandit signs" placed on rights of way, utility poles and private property. Such signs advertise weight loss, cheap mortgage rates, going-out-of-business sales - and home buying.
The ordinance doubles the penalty for posting illegal signs to $200 and directs half of the revenue collected from those fines to the neighborhood groups that organize efforts to rip them down.
Such signs are illegal under existing city law, but community leaders said the lack of enforcement has fostered a blight on city neighborhoods.
These signs "literally prey on people, prey on property owners and prey on neighborhoods," said Jody Landers, executive vice president for the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
Housing advocates say businesses that post such signs prey on homeowners who are behind in their bills, offering anywhere from 65 percent of an appraised home value to as little as a few hundred dollars, advocates said.
The residents get out of debt, and many are allowed to stay for up to a year if they pay rent, but many eventually lose their houses. The houses often go unoccupied and neighborhoods begin to deteriorate.
Organizers of the anti-sign campaign said they will keep the signs and use the contact information - phone numbers, Web sites and company names - to track down those who are the targets of complaints.
"We want to become a facilitator of enforcement," said Robert Strupp, director of research and policy at the Community Law Center.
As part of the sign-removal effort, advocates at a news conference yesterday called on homeowners under financial duress to contact reputable nonprofit organizations, such as the Community Law Center and St. Ambrose, for help.
"People are sitting on tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars of equity or more, and they don't realize it," Strupp said.
Anne Blumenberg, an attorney for St. Ambrose, said she feared that as energy costs rise, along with payments on adjustable-rate mortgages, "there will be a lot of people in trouble."
Moore spoke of "street-level public education" - talking directly to homeowners about the truth behind the signs. "That's where it has to be."