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Housing advocates share concerns about proposed revival of Baltimore’s Dollar House program

Housing advocates expressed concerns about a proposed revival of Baltimore’s popular Dollar House program as Baltimore City Council kicked off its discussions about the legislative proposal Monday.

The plan, introduced by Council President Nick Mosby, calls for a return of the Dollar House program, which gave away city-owned houses in the 1970s for $1 in exchange for homeowners renovating and living in them.

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But unlike the original Dollar House program, Mosby’s plan calls for targeting longtime residents who have been renting rather than owning. The plan is also targeted at homes in underserved areas of the city left behind by racist mortgage lending policies.

“There are many folks who live in those homes, in those communities, who should have the same level of service, same levels of growth, same level of care in those communities that others have seen,” Mosby told the group during a meeting that he billed as an early “work session” for the legislation.

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As proposed, the city would maintain a registry of city-owned vacant homes eligible for the program. Those homes would need to be in neighborhoods deemed overlooked by investors or historically subject to redlining, the racially motivated denial of loans and other services to communities considered less desirable.

Nick Mosby’s plan calls for targeting longtime residents who have been renting rather than owning.
Nick Mosby’s plan calls for targeting longtime residents who have been renting rather than owning. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Eligible neighborhoods would have to have “assets” that can be a hub for revitalization, such as public markets, transit corridors or emerging development activity, according to the bill. City housing officials would choose the neighborhoods; they are not specified in the bill.

Buyers would first least the property for two-years at a cost of $1. They would have that time to renovate the properties using financing from groups independent of the city. Buyers would be required to occupy the homes within six months or seek an exemption from the rule.

Councilman Mark Conway questioned whether that timeline would be feasible for homeowners.

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“The aggressive six months is just to ensure there’s a check-in,” Mosby said. “The idea is some of these properties will take 12 months. Some will take 18 months.”

“We’re not expecting them to have the home completely renovated?” Conway asked.

“It would be great, but if they don’t, that’s why we have that extension language in there,” Mosby said.

To be eligible for Mosby’s Dollar House program, buyers would need to be “legacy residents” of Baltimore, meaning they have either lived in the city for 15 consecutive years or were a resident for that same length of time before leaving due to a foreclosure. Participants would need to be first-time homebuyers and demonstrate the financial ability to take on the repairs.

Representatives from various city agencies did not speak about the proposed bill Monday as they typically would during a committee meeting. Mosby promised ample time for leaders to speak later.

However the city’s law department submitted a memo ahead of the meeting suggesting the proposed law is unconstitutional and in violation of the city charter. Constitutional issues arise from the legacy resident requirement, the memo stated.

“Given the participation requirements, the bill will distribute government benefits unequally, allowing long term residents of Baltimore to participate in a program unavailable to city residents who have lived in the city for fewer years,” the memo stated.

“Moreover, the benefits provided to participants are not rationally related to the need for the benefit,” the memo continued. “If a city resident loses their home because of a discriminatory housing practice, whether they resided in Baltimore for 15 years or one year, their need for the program benefit is the same.”

City Council also lacks the authority to legislate lease and sale prices for city properties, the memo argued.

A representative from the city’s law department attended Monday’s meeting, but did not speak. Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy spoke briefly to say she has concerns with the eligibility requirements for the bill as well as the number of available properties, which she said are limited, according to a city analysis.

“It’s going to be the typical legislative process,” Mosby said. “We wanted to do this work session in advance. We wanted to make sure we are all on the same page.”

Mosby’s legislation is part of a package of housing bills that also includes assistance to older adults struggling with reverse mortgages and home repair grants of up to $25,000 for homeowners in historically redlined areas. The grants could be used by participants in the Dollar House program.

The funding structure of the program, or lack thereof, prompted concerns from several housing advocates who attended the virtual meeting.

Nneka Nnamdi, founder and chief operating officer of Fight Blight Bmore, said her group does not support the legislation as it is drafted. The proposed eligibility requirements don’t capture the residents the bill hopes to target, and there’s no assurance that the homes will be affordable to those residents, she said. The bill also includes no provision for the city to offer low-cost mortgages, she said.

“We can’t trust the banks to do this,” she said. “The banks will protect their interest, but they will not protect the interest of the people.”

Claudia Wilson, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland, said she doesn’t support the bill in its current form, but would like to see it amended. Wilson said the properties eligible for the program will be scattered rather than clustered — a problem from a redevelopment perspective.

“We do have a lot of challenged neighborhoods in Baltimore, and they need clusters and concentration and focus,” she said.

Wilson echoed Nnamdi’s concerns about the willingness of banks to finance loans to residents in the targeted neighborhoods.

“We still have to be clear that people are going to have to be able to get a mortgage, and that has been a very big barrier for folks in Baltimore for a lot of reasons,” she said. “And if we leave it up to the banks, I don’t think we’re going to get there.”

Ana Rodney, executive director of MOMCares, said she could support the bill with “some very serious amendments.”

“This package just does not seem to open the door for the people who really need the support, which is a little backwards,” she said. “We’re saying we acknowledge we need to make sure that the right people are buying these houses. We acknowledge that these people have been traumatized. We acknowledge that these people have been victimized by the housing system. But we’ve got to do it right now. Their credit has to be right. We’re not going to give them too much help with finding a bank. Good luck.”

“I think that that type of language and attitude has the ability to create a bill package that does not have teeth,” Rodney continued.

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Mosby is calling on Mayor Brandon Scott to pay for the housing legislation package with $200 million in American Rescue Plan funds — an amount that’s nearly a third of the $641 million Baltimore has received from the federal recovery program. The council president has no authority to spend that money, but has argued the funds should be spent in grander, more transformative ways, such as the housing investment.

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Scott’s office was noncommittal when asked about Mosby’s legislation as it was announced last month. The mayor’s plan for the city’s ARP money includes a “substantial investment” in historically redlined neighborhoods that is forthcoming, his spokesman Cal Harris said at the time.

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