Time for Rehab Express

February 10, 1993

Over the years, Baltimore's government has allowed itself to be put in a legally indefensible position by holding onto hundreds of vacant houses, many of them in derelict condition. Many slum landlords have argued -- several of them successfully -- that they should not be prosecuted for housing code violations when the city itself fails to maintain standards in a house next door. Yet nothing has been done about this shameful situation.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke has now dusted off a bill that she unsuccessfully introduced 11 years ago. If it passes, city-owned vacant properties could be sold to first-time homebuyers and developers who pledge to improve them to meet the housing code requirements. "What this bill does is to free the vacant houses, to get them into the hands of the people. The city takes years to free a vacant house for sale," Ms. Clarke explained.

We support Ms. Clarke's goal. Though her bill is a recycled one, it is a timely proposal that calls renewed attention to Baltimore's vacant housing problem. The city's inaction in parceling vacant houses out to rehabilitators is inexcusable.

In the 1970s, Baltimore developed quite a name for itself by selling shells of houses for $1 to families and individuals who pledged to rehabilitate them and live in them. There were so many takers the houses had to be awarded through a lottery. The rest is history: houses now commanding premium prices in Otterbein, Barre Circle and Stirling Street were once $1 shells.

The 1990s are not the 1970s. Nevertheless, many vacant city-owned houses can be assigned to a family (or a commercial developer) that could rehabilitate it and return it to the tax rolls. This is feasible, but only if the unconscionable red tape is cut and the city's approval process streamlined. This is what the Clarke bill attempts to do.

Some of the stipulations of the Clarke bill are debatable. In addition to a three-year minimum residency requirement after rehabilitation, she states qualifying applicants should "not own a residence in Maryland." That makes little sense. It unnecessarily restricts the pool of applicants in a program that is hardly going to be a windfall to anyone but the most serious rehabilitator willing to take a long-term chance on a marginal property.

The important thing, however, is to trigger some action in City Hall. It's time for the municipal government to stop hoarding vacant properties and return them to productive use. Bureaucrats have nothing to lose but their lethargy.

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