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City Council president: Bringing back — and building on — Baltimore’s dollar house program | GUEST COMMENTARY

Dollar houses have become a sort of urban lore in Baltimore. The fabled William Donald Schaefer-era program breathed new life into neighborhoods like Barre Circle and Otterbein, and most people in Baltimore have heard about someone’s mother or aunt or cousin who was able to grab hold of a piece of the American Dream for just $1 if they promised to fix up a vacant and falling down house.

Community members still ask: Can we bring back dollar houses? And over the years, elected officials and candidates for office have opined about the possibility of handing over the keys to vacant, city-owned properties to regular folks, so they can fix them up and live in them and revitalize neighborhoods house by house by house.

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The American Rescue Plan Act affords the opportunity to stop talking about bringing back dollar houses and just do it. I am introducing legislation to give our legacy residents, along with city workers and Housing Choice voucher recipients, the ability to choose a house from the city’s stock for $1 — and then repair it, with the protection of various safeguards and incentives to prevent the buyers from becoming underwater on their loans.

It’s part of a sweeping legislative package that is arguably the council’s most substantial in modern history. This “House Baltimore” plan would create mixed-income communities where our residents have the chance to buy a house they can afford, stay in that home and use the property to ultimately create generational wealth for their family.

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We need to invest the $641 million our city will receive in federal relief aid, and not merely spend it. While the council cannot yet allocate money, I am calling on Mayor Brandon M. Scott to invest $200 million, or about a third of that money, on responsibly growing our city.

I’ve spent more than nine months consulting with everyone from community members to policy experts to develop a plan that mirrors federal legislation and draws on best practices from across the country.

The package will take multiple parts, but at the center are our legacy residents from disinvested communities. These are people who have lived in Baltimore for at least 15 years and are the ones who have been holding up our neighborhoods in the face of disproportional disinvestment and the resulting crime, grime and blight. I believe we must extend the same opportunity to allow members of our city workforce who live in these same disinvested communities to become first-time home buyers. Housing Choice voucher holders would be able to convert their housing assistance into a mortgage payment through this program as well.

Also in the package is a bill to create a home repairs program. This would provide grants worth up to $25,000 to help our residents in disinvested communities, regardless of age, stay in their homes when facing emergencies, costly repairs and necessary accessibility upgrades. Another bill would offer grants up to $5,000 to seniors citywide who are facing foreclosure due to reverse mortgages.

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A second, forthcoming phase of the package will use the power of inclusionary zoning to address homelessness by requiring more deeply affordable housing units be added to the development pipeline. As a former state delegate, I know the value of working with partners in the State House and expect to collaborate with them to expand city tax credits, so we can offer entrepreneurs, people with college loan debt and others incentives that would close the appraisal gap so they can buy homes and residential storefronts in Baltimore.

In an unusual step, I will refer the package to the council’s “Committee of the Whole,” so each of our members will have an opportunity to weigh in on the bills and help shape the outcome of the legislation.

At my inauguration as City Council president, I pledged to reimagine the council’s role in addressing systemic issues by building on the body’s historic constituent service focus with far-reaching legislative policy solutions. This is me working to meet that promise with action.

Outside of the impact this would bring to the individual lives the programs would touch, the House Baltimore legislation is carefully designed to reduce the city’s racial wealth gap, close the gulf between rates of white and Black homeownership and reverse the city’s population decline as revealed in the recent U.S. Census.

We cannot afford to lose anyone else.

Nick J. Mosby (CouncilPresident@BaltimoreCity.gov) is president of the Baltimore City Council.

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