There is so much unhappiness about housing in Baltimore these days that we think Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ought to call a housing summit. If it is properly organized, it would not only be a forum for complaints but a trigger mechanism for action.
We would like to see the housing summit focus on the following main themes:
* How can the Housing Court be better synchronized with the inspection functions of the Department of Housing and Community Development? Because the court is a state court and the housing department is a city bureaucracy, they often do not mesh. Misplaced files, improperly served subpoenas and absent witnesses are commonplace, leading to repeated postponements and defeating the purpose of the court as a final arbiter.
* What to do about vacant housing? Federal subsidies, by and large, may be gone but some form of new urban homesteading and shopsteading should be tried to put vacant structures back on the tax rolls as revenue-producing properties. A central land bank ought to be established to offer vacant houses to would-be rehabilitators, whether they be private individuals and companies or non-profit organizations.
* How to improve marginal rental housing? This is a socio-economic problem. Yes, there are irresponsible landlords who do not fix anything. But there are also irresponsible tenants who wreck one unit after another and aggravate latent rodent infestation through their own living habits.
* How to sell Baltimore City? Despite its high property tax rate, the city has many attractive properties. But there is no real sales effort by the city. And recent cutbacks, resulting in worsening street sanitation and evicted families' belongings staying on the sidewalks for weeks, make many neighborhoods look so trashy that real estate agents do not want to hold open houses. All this is increasing the glut of housing for sale in the city.
* How to increase home ownership? One of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore City is the incredible supply of fully rehabilitated homes selling for less a month than an ordinary family pays in rent. Some of these houses are near Oriole Park, others are in various other parts of the city near parks and public transportation routes. These properties come with financing and interest rates that are difficult to beat. Yet many of these houses do not sell, although home-ownership would make economic sense to most families.
We urge Mayor Schmoke to bring everyone from landlords and tenants to community organizations and developers together for a housing summit. Baltimore City needs a well-defined new agenda for housing action.