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Politics

Baltimore City Council session on proposed Dollar House revival devolves into heated verbal sparring as supporters pack City Hall

The debate over a proposed revival of Baltimore’s Dollar House program erupted into a verbal melee among the members of the Baltimore City Council and the public as people flooded City Hall on Tuesday, filling council chambers and pounding on Mayor Brandon Scott’s office door.

Just before the council met, Council President Nick Mosby, the author of the legislation, held a joint news conference in an adjoining room in City Hall with Bruce Marks, CEO of the housing organization Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America. Marks’ group organized the supporters in attendance.

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Marks and Mosby led a group of supporters that first numbered around 75 but grew to several hundred into Council chambers, where members of the City Council were set to discuss the Dollar House proposal. Marks was also asked to speak to the Council as a subject matter expert, Mosby said, although he condemned the group’s banging on the mayor’s door.

At one point during the two-hour meeting, Marks led chanting from bill supporters in a standing room-only Council chambers as Mosby looked on with no reaction. Marks decried Scott as the “opposition” standing in the way of the bill, saying he is “bought and paid for” by the real estate industry. The remark and a similar one directed at Councilwoman Odette Ramos, known for her advocacy on housing issues, prompted outcry from several members of the City Council, who verbally sparred with Marks. Mosby repeatedly had to hammer a gavel to quiet the unrest.

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“I want to make sure there’s not a riot outside,” Marks suggested. “I want to make sure people have their voices heard.”

Council members Danielle McCray and Ryan Dorsey walked out of chambers amid the shouting.

The charged public display came during the council’s first in-person meeting on the proposed Dollar House revival, a legislative package introduced by Mosby in November. The bills call 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.

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

The Dollar House bill is being considered alongside two other housing proposals championed by Mosby that would award home-repair grants up to $50,000 and offer assistance for older adults who have defaulted on reverse mortgages. Buyers investing in a home through the Dollar House program would be able to take advantage of the home-repair grants to make improvements to their homes.

Council members and city housing officials have raised concerns about the eligibility requirements for the program, which they argue are unnecessarily complicated and the potential for homeowners to find themselves underwater from the moment they renovate their home.

The city’s original Dollar House program offered low-interest financing for the full cost of renovations. Buyers under Mosby’s program would be limited to grants and money obtained from private lenders.

After more than a half-dozen hearings on the legislative package, the council deadlocked in its first attempt to vote on the legislation at a March 3 meeting. Members tied 7-7 with one member absent, failing to advance the legislation and stranding it in committee.

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No vote was called on the legislation Tuesday, and Mosby said he does not know when one will be taken. Asked whether he has the votes to pass the legislative package, Mosby said he does not know, but noted he was only one vote short the last time.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, who voted against the measure during the March hearing, said he has had no conversations with his colleagues indicating that they have changed their minds about the proposal.

If approved by the City Council, the Dollar House legislative package would require approval from Scott to become law. James Bentley, Scott’s spokesman, described the proposal Tuesday night as “pie in the sky.”

Scott allocated $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to address housing issues, Bentley noted.

“Frankly, the council president’s legislation does not match the mayor’s vision for meaningful policy and programs designed to help our communities or even come close,” he said. “This legislation appears more harmful than helpful.”

A tally of the potential expense of the legislative package has not been calculated, but it’s likely to be significant. Housing officials estimated that the grants offered by the legislative package would cost $13.8 million annually when $25,000 was the cap. An amendment approved in March increased the grant portion of the package to $50,000.

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Even if it’s approved, the City Council lacks the authority to fund the program. Mosby has proposed using $200 million of the city’s $641 million from the American Rescue Plan to establish the program. Scott controls those funds, and has less than $200 million left to allocate.

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Standing alongside Marks at the news conference ahead of the meeting, Mosby said the legislation, which he called unconventional, will prioritize city residents in a way they never have been before.

“If this is not the time, when is the time?” Mosby asked.

Marks said following the meeting that he volunteered to attend Tuesday’s session. Marks said he has been working with Mosby on the bill for the past year. During the meeting, however, Mosby said the group was unaffiliated with the legislation.

“The politicians don’t like to get called out,” Marks said. “They don’t like to be called out for what it is. Because when you look at it, how can someone be against this? Unless there are other interests [at play].”

Mosby said after the meeting that he had no advance knowledge that Marks and his supporters were going to try to approach the mayor or bang on his office door.

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“That’s unacceptable behavior in this chamber or in City Hall,” he said. “None of that is productive.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lilly Price contributed to this article.


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