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Deeds: Volunteers help Baltimoreans untangle titles, keep more homes from going vacant | COMMENTARY

Vines grow over boarded windows in the 2000 block of Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore.
Vines grow over boarded windows in the 2000 block of Greenmount Avenue in East Baltimore.(Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Last year, while looking into issues related to housing trends in Baltimore — new apartment construction, household sizes, the number of vacant properties — I asked urban nerds who constantly study Our City of Perpetual Recovery what could reverse recent population losses.

As usual, reducing violent crime was part of the answer. So was improving the city’s public schools in a big, Kirwan Commission-ish way. Developing more affordable housing was right up there, too. (I suggested that it might help to have a mayor who was honest, competent, committed and maybe even inspiring.)

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But there were other issues that needed attention.

Better public transportation — reducing home-to-work travel time — came up frequently. In fact, research from the University of Baltimore found a correlation between a commute of more than 45 minutes and neighborhood instability. Long commutes prompt some people to move away; others become discouraged or show up late and lose their jobs.

While that problem was not new, it’s emphasis surprised me. It was frequently cited as a deal-breaker for even the most committed city dwellers, people who liked living in their neighborhood because it kept them close to family, friends and church.

Another issue that I knew less about was “tangled title.” Michael Braverman, the city’s housing commissioner and an expert in legal issues related to vacant houses, mentioned it when we were in Lafayette Square, an area prime for redevelopment. It’s apparently a common problem.

Tangled title on a rowhouse — that is, when the person living there and claiming ownership is not listed on the deed — means things get messy and homes end up empty. The homeowner might have died and a grandson might haved moved in; a city tax bill or water bill arrives, the grandson can’t pay, and soon the property ends up in court. (Just last year, the Maryland General Assembly banned the city from placing liens against homes over unpaid water bills.)

“Some of the most time-consuming and complicated cases are those involving properties with deceased owners,” noted an Abell Foundation report on vacant houses by former Sun reporter Joan Jacobson. “City officials often spend months searching for an owner’s heirs, eventually going to Orphans Court to untangle an estate before filing for receivership in District Court.”

From there, such a property usually goes to auction, and that’s generally a good thing. But, as the Abell report noted, this process takes time and properties deteriorate — again, bad for neighborhoods, bad for the city. There have been hundreds of “zombie properties” over the years, the report said, “because the ownership is clouded, making sale or transfer of the property more difficult.”

What’s the remedy?

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“Try to make sure that all elderly homeowners have an estate plan,” said Peter Duvall, community revitalization coordinator for Strong City Baltimore.

And that’s where the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service enters the picture.

The MVLS provides pro bono help to Marylanders who can’t afford an attorney for civil matters. In the last couple of years, it started providing advice on estates and help untangling titles to homes. There turned out to be a big need for both, particularly in Baltimore. The MVLS created a special program called “Homeowner: My Home, My Deed, My Legacy” to help people navigate deed issues, stay in their family homes and keep their major wealth-building asset for future generations.

I asked the MVLS for an example of a tangle and they referred me to the case of Vivian Dunlap, a woman who grew up in West Baltimore and lived in her family home until she was in her 20s. Here’s the MVLS narrative of the case:

“The property was deeded to Ms. Dunlap’s sister and brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law passed away in 1996. In 2004, Ms. Dunlap moved back to the property to take care of her sister. In 2008, Ms. Dunlap’s sister passed away.

“Ms. Dunlap continued living in the home, but experienced a water bill issue that was leading her down the path of tax sale. She connected with the MVLS team to help her sort out a payment plan for the water bill. In addition, Ms. Dunlap was experiencing a mold issue in the home, but she didn’t qualify for any home-repair tax credits or programs because her name wasn’t on the deed to the property.

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“She had to move from the home and is now living in Prince George’s County because of the mold issue. The MVLS is helping Ms. Dunlap … so her name can be added to the deed and she can gain the credits needed to fix the home to move back in.”

The MVLS says its volunteers helped 166 low-income Marylanders with title issues last year, 110 of them in Baltimore. The state Department of Housing and Community Development just granted the organization $200,000 to continue the program and expand outreach. Getting people to understand that they might have a problem — that the house they’re living in does not legally belong to them — is a big part of the challenge.

The MVLS has helped people with wills, briefed prospective homebuyers on the need for estate planning, and it now has a tangled-title attorney, Timothy Chance, on staff.

I’ve heard lawyers say that title work (reviewing property records to confirm ownership or discover liens and loans) is the most boring area of law. But untangling a mess so that someone can own grandma’s rowhouse and stay in the neighborhood — in Baltimore, with still too many vacants, that’s a real public service.

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