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Rodricks: For Baltimore's vacant homes, why not a buyer's club?

Once upon a time in Baltimore, you could have seen members of the same family, or workers from the same company, living on the same street, sometimes in adjoining rowhouses. Once upon a time, after the waves of immigrants that filled the town in the 19th and 20th centuries, Baltimore had several ethnic enclaves, and they lasted for generations.

A lot of this resulted from the pointing of fingers: Great-great-grandfather got off the boat at Locust Point and someone pointed him toward a neighborhood where he could afford a room, hear his native language, and meet a future wife from his former country.

Some of this happened by local ordinance: Racial prejudice and segregation severely limited housing opportunities for black families. And anti-Semitism by covenant ensured that Jewish families could only live in certain neighborhoods.

I’m not calling for the return of any kind of segregation by law or policy.

Rather, I’m suggesting that when it comes to renovating abandoned rowhouses and repopulating old city blocks once packed with families, there is strength in numbers.

No one wants to spend a dime on a single vacant house in a long, sad block of vacants. And, even if they did, they probably couldn’t get financing.

But take on 10 houses at a time and we might see more progress than the city’s vacant house program already has achieved. If people could form small development groups, we might see the number of vacants fall faster and the population start to grow again.

It’s a little like a buyer’s club.

People who are related through, say, marriage or friendship, profession or workplace, or even country of origin could form partnerships to take on the challenge of fixing up vacant homes. The city of Baltimore, with thousands of vacants, could sell them in blocks of 10 — even 15 or 20 — to these small groups and offer low-interest renovation loans. The homebuyers would agree to fix their fixer-uppers within two years and live in them for no less than five years after that.

This approach combines some aspects of the city’s successful (and fondly remembered) “Dollar Homes” program of the 1970s with the pragmatic aspects of the current “Vacants to Value” program. It says to a new generation of urban pioneer: Sign up 10 relatives, friends or co-workers and we’ll sell you half a block of houses.

It’s a response to what I frequently hear from fellow citizens: Baltimore is not moving fast enough on vacant rowhouses, and there’s too much emphasis on demolishing them.

The city’s housing officials do not believe it would be possible to revive the “Dollar Homes” program of the William Donald Schaefer era. But a revival of sorts could take place within the frame of these small development groups I’m talking about: Sell the houses for $1. Make obtaining the properties and financing the renovations relatively easy.

People of modest income — and their extended families, friends or co-workers — could end up as homeowners on the same block. They should have priority in purchasing homes.

More affluent parents or grandparents could get in on this, too. They could help finance the renovation of multiple homes for children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Cousins could live next to each other and actually visit live, in person, rather than via Facebook. Elders could end up having their primary caregivers living just one or two doors away.

The program I describe — I don’t have a clever name for it yet — would address the city’s need for more affordable housing and more home ownership. Those needs are acute.

In their latest statistical profile of the city, released last week, researchers at the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute found that about 45 percent of city residents live in rental properties, and more than half of them spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. That’s not good.

“That’s a tipping-point issue for many families,” says Seema Iyer, associate director of the institute. “It’s the level beyond which you are likely to have trouble doing much more than living month to month, paycheck to paycheck. You’re unable to build toward a down payment on your own home.”

And people with no equity in a home have a hard time achieving financial stability or making financial progress.

So having more affordable housing is important. But it’s a big challenge.

Which is why a proposal in City Council to raise $20 million to fund such projects makes sense. The money would come from increasing the city’s transfer and recordation taxes on properties sold to people who intend to rent them, not live in them.

The advocacy group Housing For All: Baltimore believes that using the fund to rehabilitate vacant properties could create up to 400 affordable homes a year.

So my idea doesn’t have a name yet, but it might have a funding source.

My timing on this is just about awesome.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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