I wasn’t kidding last year when I suggested that billionaire Michael Bloomberg invest $500 million in the acquisition, renovation and sale of 5,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. Someone — perhaps a classmate from his undergraduate days at Hopkins, maybe someone in City Hall — needs to invite him to do it.
Bloomberg is an original member of The Giving Pledge, the commitment he, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other wealthy Americans made 10 years ago to give at least half of their fortunes to worthy causes.
Turning 5,000 of Baltimore’s 15,593 vacant houses into affordable homes and converting thousands of renters to homeowners, raising property values in numerous neighborhoods and sparking growth in the city’s population is a hugely worthwhile cause.
Bloomberg, whose wealth has grown even greater since making the pledge, needs to come back to Baltimore and take a ride around the city with Mayor Brandon Scott. There are nonprofit organizations that could channel a big Bloomberg donation into renovation projects almost immediately, targeting, for starters, the 1,351 vacant properties the city currently owns.
Not all of the Bloomberg money would have to go to vacants. Some of it could be turned into zero interest loans to homeowners who have been unable to afford renovations. And some could be used to acquire houses from landlords and, after a fix-up, offer them for sale to their tenants.
That last idea comes from a man I’ve been conversing with, a native of India, accomplished data scientist and now real estate investor named Salil “Sal” Choudhary. A U.S. citizen since 2010, Choudhary believes in Baltimore, lives here and wants to see more renters become homeowners. That will be good for them, their neighborhoods and their city. Choudhary says he knows people, including old friends from college days, who became wealthy from careers in technology and now have millions to invest in real estate. (One, he says, has the means to buy 100 houses in the city.)
“The idea,” he says, “is what I tell my friends: Bring your money to Baltimore, make money for the next 10 years, and do something good for my city.”
Choudhary is enthusiastic, driven and impatient. He immediately reminds you that people who get things done in this world have big engines. If Choudhary were a car, he’d probably have a V-12 under the hood. Problem is, he feels surrounded by people and systems chugging along on four cylinders, and it drives him crazy. He wants Baltimore to move faster on the housing front in a big way, and he has ideas about how to do it.
Last year, Choudhary says, he arranged for a New York investor to buy 18 rowhouses from a single owner on a single block in the Barclay neighborhood for $1.7 million. All the homes are rentals, all occupied. The investor hired a property manager and, Choudary says, the new owner is getting his expected returns.
But, while that shows investor interest in Baltimore, it’s not the kind of deal Choudhary wants to make. He thinks more longtime renters should be homeowners and more homeowners should get help in fixing up their properties. He’s not interested in gentrifying a neighborhood, he says. Instead, he wants to help people who’ve lived in their homes, as renters or owners, for a long time.
“We don’t want to say, ‘Oh, this area is up and coming, let me buy 20 houses. That is short-term thinking,” Choudhary says. “The bigger thinking is, I want to improve an area … and uplift people.”
He says he’s been able to attract investors with cash and a desire to avoid federal taxes by investing in government-designated Opportunity Zones.
Choudhary wants to make his pitch to longtime tenants, and there are many in Baltimore. As of 2018, the city had more renters than homeowners, according to an analysis of census data by RENTCafe.com. Converting tenants to homeowners is a challenge; some nonprofits have been working at that for decades. Choudhary wants to buy homes from landlords who have little interest in improving their properties and establish rent-to-own contracts with the tenants.
For homeowners too cash-strapped to make improvements to rowhouses of modest value, Choudhary would buy them out and move them out while he makes repairs. He would then offer to sell the house back to the previous owners at a price that reflects his investment and some profit. They could use the cash they received from the sale to Choudhary as a down payment and either arrange financing of the balance with a lender or enter into a rent-to-own deal.
Choudhary and his investors want to do this a block at a time, 10 to 20 homes on the same street. That means negotiating with numerous property owners (assuming he can locate them) while dealing with tenants and with the city. That’s a rough road, and I told him so. But it doesn’t seem to worry him. What worries him, he says, are bureaucratic hassles and status quo thinking.
“I am trying to figure out a simple, clear path so I don’t get gray hairs,” he says. “My focus should be to bring investors to invest and make money while my focus is to improve my city.”