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Politics

Baltimore City Council introduces legislation to combat vacant properties

Baltimore City Council has introduced bills aimed at combating the city’s problem with vacant properties.

The legislation, which includes three bills sponsored by City Council President Nick Mosby and two from Odette Ramos, calls for increasing several fees associated with owning a vacant property in Baltimore. Another bill would streamline the city’s newly approved “in rem” foreclosure process to make sure it’s aligned with state law.

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The legislation, introduced at City Council’s meeting Monday night, follows the deaths of three Baltimore firefighters who were killed while battling a fire in a vacant home earlier this year. Fire lieutenants Paul Butrim and Kelsey Sadler and paramedic/firefighter Kenny Lacayo were trapped inside the vacant home on S. Stricker Street in January after it partially collapsed. A fourth firefighter, John McMaster, was seriously injured in the blaze, which is among the deadliest for firefighters in Baltimore’s history.

Baltimore has about 16,000 vacant properties, the majority of which are privately owned.

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Mosby’s proposed legislation, included in a package of bills known as House Baltimore, would hold the owners of vacant properties responsible for fees if the city’s fire department is called to their property for incidents involving water, hazardous materials or other issues that require fire personnel.

According to the bill, owners could be on the hook for $400 per hour per fire engine on the scene of a fire as well as another $500 per hour per fire truck. Fire investigation services would cost $500 per hour. Hazardous materials responses would cost a minimum of $700 per hour.

Another Mosby proposal would build on the city’s existing vacant property registration system to incentivize improving properties. His third bill would create a fee system for properties that receive repeated 311 requests.

Fees would be charged after the second substantiated 311 request made for an address in a 12-month period. The second complaint would cost $100, while the third would cost $200. A proposed fee schedule includes rates for up to 10 offenses, at which time a homeowner would be charged $2,500.

During City Council’s lunchtime meeting Monday, Mosby said the owners of too many vacant properties in Baltimore are sitting on them, considering the city’s existing fees and tax structure to be “the cost of doing business.”

“The normalization of that just needs to stop,” he said. “This is a way for us to start the conversation with the agencies, with the administration to ensure we’re doing all we can do to hold folks accountable and provide some level of incentive to them to be good custodians of properties in our communities.”

The future of the rest of Mosby’s House Baltimore plan remains unclear. Earlier this month, a proposed revival of the city’s Dollar House program, the cornerstone of the legislative package, stalled in committee after a 7-7 vote. Mosby pledged at the time to “continue to work on any problems” with the legislation, but no additional hearings have been scheduled.

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The bill introduced by Ramos focus on the city’s in rem foreclosure process, allowing the city to pull a property out of its annual tax sale.

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Each year, Baltimore holds a sale of tax lien certificates to collect on past-due property taxes or other delinquent charges. Investors purchase the liens from the city during an online auction. Those investors can then collect the debts, with interest. If the debts are not paid, the buyers eventually could foreclose on the properties.

In rem foreclosures allow the city to remove properties from tax sale and to foreclose on tax liens so the city can take a clear title to a property. The process can be used only on vacant or abandoned properties that have liens higher than the assessed value of the property, Ramos said. State officials enabled the process in 2019, and Baltimore passed local legislation allowing it in 2020.

Ramos said her new bill will make sure the city’s law has the same requirements for notifying owners as the state law in hopes of increasing the use of in rem foreclosures.

Ramos also proposed a bill which would increase the fine for a failure to abate citation to $1,000. Currently, the city can issue a $900 citation to owners of properties who don’t resolve issues at buildings that have been tagged as vacant but not razed or improved.

“The idea is to get the attention of the owner and say ‘Hey, you can’t do this anymore. You can’t just own the property,’” Ramos said.

Most of the proposed legislation will be assigned to council committees. Mosby’s bill proposing an emergency response fee will be heard by the council’s committee of the whole.


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