Krisha Syrkes, who has been trying to buy a home in Baltimore through the Boston-based Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, was excited when she got an email from the group’s CEO, Bruce Marks, summoning program participants to Baltimore City Hall.
“This is a crucial hearing to pass legislation where homebuyers can purchase a city property for $1 and renovate it with financing through NACA’s Best in America Mortgage,” the April 23 email from Marks said. “There is also additional assistance of $50,000 for rehabs for either homebuyers or homeowners.”
Syrkes, a federal employee who lives in Virginia, drove north on Tuesday and found herself in a City Hall meeting room at a press conference-cum-pep rally, organized by Nick Mosby, president of the City Council and sponsor of the Dollar House bill.
Her account provides a fuller picture of events leading up to a committee hearing that was apparently meant to garner support for the legislation, but ended up as something else.
In a video posted by the housing non-profit NACA, Mosby’s director of legislative affairs, Nikki Thompson, could be seen introducing her boss to the crowd packing the Du Burns meeting room.
“This is about ensuring that we’re connecting working-class legacy Baltimoreans to the hottest and most valuable commodity of our city and that’s real estate,” Mosby said.
He went on to say that the city has never before prioritized longtime residents over “developers and speculators,” which is why getting his “unconventional” legislation passed will be “a heavy lift.”
“So that’s why we’re all gathered here today,” Mosby told the crowd. “I look forward to a very spirited hearing. I look forward to testimony from folks in this room.”
When the time came for Marks to discuss plans for the Council hearing, he asked Mosby to leave.
“I don’t want to put the City Council President Mosby in an awkward position, so let me talk about tactics,” he said, turning to tell Mosby “you can stay if you want, but . . .”
Mosby smiled and exited.
Marks went on to tell the crowd that “Brandon Scott does not believe in affordable home ownership, so he’s behind the scenes putting the arm on city councilors[sic] to kill the bill.
“That’s why we’re going to go from here across the hallway,” he continued. “We want your voices to be heard.”
Addressing the audience, Marks at one point repeated the promise implied by his weekend email:
“If you want to buy in Baltimore . . . you get those homes for a dollar – for one dollar!” he enthused.
“And you get a $50,000 grant to do the renovation. Then NACA will provide the rest of the money for you to finish the renovation,” he continued. “It’s a game changer!”
There was nothing in his remarks to indicate what Syrkes later discovered – that Mosby’s legislation only offers the homes to city residents.
Syrkes said some in the room were from Baltimore, but many others were from other parts of Maryland as well as D.C., Virginia and West Virginia.
“I have never felt more betrayed or bewildered” – Krisha Syrkes.
The fiery CEO then went further, tying a person’s appearance at the meeting with priority eligibility for a dollar house.
“We want to make sure that everybody who’s here and participating with this push for crucial legislation, you’re first in line, okay?” Marks told them.
Syrkes said when she realized that Marks’ email had been “very misleading,” she was angry at the waste of her time, plus the money she spent on gas and the $12 to park.
“I have never felt more betrayed and bewildered,” she told The Brew yesterday.
“Like inciting a riot”
The reason the crowd had been called to Baltimore soon became clear.
When Marks mobilized the group – many wearing the the yellow NACA “Land Shark” tee shirts they’d been given – to pound on Mayor Brandon Scott’s door, Syrkes knew they were being manipulated into participating in a stunt.
“I was appalled by his performance,” she said. “He riled up everybody. It was, to me, like inciting a riot.”
Syrkes said she put her head down when a NACA person started filming them (“I didn’t give my permission to be filmed”) and refused to be part of the scene outside of Scott’s office.
Marks can be seen in the video slapping the metal door, shouting that Scott is “bought and paid for by developers” and urging people filling the hallway to chant “Brandon Scott, come on out!”
“I’m not going to jail for this. I got out of there!” – Krisha Syrkes.
In his weekend email, Marks had also told NACA members that their presence in Baltimore would count toward one of the five participation activities (attending rallies, working in the office, etc.) required of program participants.
Syrkes was having none of it: “I said ‘I’m not going to jail for this!’” she recalled. “I got out of there.”
Security officers “were pissed”
The meeting eventually blew up into an embarrassment for Mosby, who ostensibly organized it to rally Council support for his Dollar House legislation that stalled out in committee.
Council members said they were disgusted by the NACA CEO’s behavior in the chambers and upset with Mosby, who allowed the crowd to chant at length, and Marks to insult Councilwoman Odette Ramos, along with the mayor.
Mosby later said he had no idea the group would behave as they did.
He apologized on Wednesday, saying “some” of what happened was “completely disrespectful to the institution of the City Council, to this historic building and to the overwhelming amount of citizens who were here to participate and be civically engaged.”
In an op-ed, six council members chastised Mosby for poor judgment and said his apology was inadequate.
One of them was Ramos, who said council members’ fears for their safety were real.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen. It felt like things were possibly out of control,” said Ramos, who noted that there was no security officer in the room at the time.
“I talked to the officers who staff City Hall the next day, and they were pissed,” Ramos said.
She said no one had told the officers that a big group was coming except Marks, who said possibly 300 people would be there: “They got on the phone immediately to call for back-up.”
Ramos said she had known nothing about NACA’s involvement in the bill until the day of the committee meeting when she was asked to come down to the Council President’s office.
“When I got there, the President was not there, but Mr. Marks was there,” she said.
Marks, unsuccessfully, tried to counter Ramos’ concerns about the bill: “we agreed to disagree.”
Ramos said she was disappointed to hear that Marks apparently failed to explain to the people he brought to City Hall that the program is only for city residents.
(At one point in the video, Marks can be heard pitching the phantom houses to the crowd: “You can say ‘This is how I want my house painted!” This is how I want my bedrooms! This is how I want my floors! You can customize it!”)
“That is so unethical and bad,” Ramos said.
Ramos observed, and The Brew confirmed, that neither Marks nor NACA is on the list of people and organizations registered to lobby in City Hall.
Ethics Board Executive Director Jeffrey Hochstetler confirmed yesterday that Marks’ name does not appear on the current list.
Under the City Code, a person must register as a lobbyist if they communicate with a public servant in attempt to influence legislation if they: 1) expend $100 or more in gifts, 2) incur expenses of $500 or more or 3) earn $2,500 or more in compensation.
NACA describes itself on its website as a “home ownership advocacy organization” that works with lenders, promising to help borrowers purchase a home with no down payment and no closing cost.
The most recent federal form 990 filing for the nonprofit group that was available online, for the 2018 tax year, lists Marks with a salary of $217,500.