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by Mark Reutter12:23 pmMar 25, 20240

Mayor Scott’s fixed vacant house pricing plan is approved, but is not without its critics

Odette Ramos says the approach favors speculators over city residents and has little buy-in from the community. Nick Mosby predicts gentrification.

Above: Vacant houses owned by the city and Druid Heights Community Development Corp. in West Baltimore. (Mark Reutter, 2021)

While Mayor Brandon Scott’s State of the City address tonight will laud his $3 billion “vision” to rehab 37,000 vacant and abandoned properties in Baltimore, one of the few concrete measures arising from the plan has come under fire.

Setting a fixed sale price for city-owned vacants – $3,000 for a developer, $1,000 for a nonprofit and $1 for a prospective homeowner or land trust – the arrangement was approved last week by the Board of Estimates over the objections of Councilwoman Odette Ramos and Council President Nick Mosby.

Ramos says the program favors speculators over city residents and has little buy-in by the community, while Mosby claims it could cause gentrification and displacement.

Scott defends the pricing plan as simply about selling vacants more efficiently by eliminating individual house appraisals and sometimes protracted negotiations with potential buyers.

The administration is separately developing “an anti-displacement and equity-based framework” for rehabilitating vacants, the mayor says.

That argument doesn’t hold water to the critics, who say poor planning by the city Department of Housing and Community Development is undercutting Scott’s stated ambition to fix the vacant house crisis “once and for all.”

Mosby says the city is simply tweaking the flawed way it now disposes of city property, which he characterized as enabling a small group of insiders “who know how to pick up the phone and call someone.”

Ramos has a similar complaint, saying the city’s current Buy Into Bmore website is confusing and does not give priority to renters and others who are key to turning around neighborhoods blighted with abandoned properties.

Two speakers before the spending board – Dwanda Farmer, a housing consultant, and Nneka N’namdi, executive director of the SOS Fund – also urged the city to give priority to local residents wanting to buy vacant properties, especially those in need of affordable housing.

Catching flak from a determined council member, Scott defers action on his vacant house pricing plan (3/6/24)

Baltimore HCD proposes to sell vacant properties for $1 under certain conditions (2/29/24)

Ramos impassioned plea to the Board of Estimates 6 on March 6 led to a two-week delay in approving the vacant pricing schedule, only to result in the same plan, modified by a few word changes, reintroduced by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“They just don’t care about reaching out to stakeholders,” Ramos told The Brew.

BOE listening to Nick Mosby's critique of the fixed pricing program. From left: Acting Public Works Director Kazliel Zaied, Comptroller Bill Henury, Mosby, Mayor Brandon Scott and Solicitor Ebony Thompson. (Charm TV)

Board of Estimates listens to Nick Mosby’s questioning of Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy. From left: Acting Public Works Director Khalil Zaied, Comptroller Bill Henry, Mosby, Mayor Brandon Scott and City Solicitor Ebony Thompson. (Charm TV)

Guardrails? Financing Tools?

Before the pricing plan was approved by the Board of Estimates (Comptroller Bill Henry joined the mayor and his two appointees with “yes” votes), Mosby wrangled out of DHCD Commissioner Alice Kennedy that the sales program has no mechanism or other guardrails to prevent displacement.

“We need these guardrails in place to ensure our own city residents are given the first rights to buy properties available rather than being forced out when neighborhoods improve, because the folks who will be forced out are the renters and legacy residents who stabilize their blocks,” Mosby announced after he voted against the plan.

“DHCD is saying they won’t sell properties in the middle of a block, but there’s nothing in writing that says that”  – Councilwoman Odette Ramos.

While the number of city-owned vacants that might be sold under the fixed-price plan amounts to only a few hundred, the lack of “intentional planning” by the administration, Ramos said, could hobble its larger effort to combat vacants through whole-block rehabilitation.

“DHCD is saying that they won’t sell properties in the middle of a block, but there’s nothing in writing that says that,” she says. “And there’s no financing tools for lower-income residents to help pay for the huge cost of making a vacant house habitable.”

Under the new rules, which went into effect last week, individuals who secure a vacant house for $1 would have one year after settlement to rehab the building and would need to live in the property for five years or pay a penalty.

But without low-interest loans and technical support programs, Ramos says most city residents don’t have the capital or expertise to fix empty, dilapidated houses, which could easily cost $150,000 or more to make livable.

Since the 1990s, there have been 420 vacant and abandoned properties that the city has sold to investors, who then flipped the properties as many as five times.

“All of these properties are still vacant and abandoned,” Ramos pointed out.

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