Baltimore to auction 1,500 empty houses Aim is to provide homes to families

April 23, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

In an effort to get dilapidated vacant properties renovated and back on Baltimore's tax rolls, the city will offer up to 1,500 privately owned houses at a tax sale next month -- and the buyers won't be saddled with liens or back taxes.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced the May 12 sale yesterday, saying he hopes to rehabilitate at least 1,500 of the 4,500 privately owned houses throughout the city that are now vacant and boarded up.

Mr. Schmoke said the city also hopes to offer low-interest loans to help buyers renovate the homes -- a move he believes would rejuvenate neighborhoods blighted by vacant dwellings with absentee landlords.

Some of the houses could sell for as little as a few hundred dollars, a 1990s version of the homesteading program of the late '70s in which vacant city homes were sold for $1, said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

"This is the $1-house concept reborn," Ms. Clarke said. "Market value may be higher than $1, but these house are all going to be affordable. This is a great response to what neighborhoods have been telling us for the last 10 years -- fix the vacants, and you begin to fix the neighborhoods and even the crime."

A change in the state property tax law allows the city to sell the properties without requiring the buyers to assume responsibility for back taxes or liens for such problems as unpaid water bills or the cost of boarding up vacant homes.

Taxes and liens can inflate the purchase price by $10,000, and in the past potential buyers often walked away from the properties at tax sales because the bill greatly exceeded the value of the house, said Ottavio Grande, acting city collector.

Under the new program, the former owners -- not the buyers -- will have to pay the back taxes and liens.

The new owners will be required to go to court within six months and obtain a judgment in favor of the city against the former owner so the city can collect the money it is owed on the property, Mr. Grande said.

"We're saying that we will go after those owners even if we have to get the money from their estate after they die," said Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner. "We will collect these tax dollars, but we won't try to collect them from the new buyer but from the old owner."

If the previous owner tries to redeem the property within 60 days after the auction -- which is legal -- they will have to pay all liens plus a 24 percent interest penalty assessed on the purchase price, Mr. Grande said.

The purchaser will then receive a refund, plus some interest that would give them a profit, he said.

Bidding will start at the amount of taxes owed on each dwelling, including some that have bills as low as $100, Mr. Grande said. An additional $85 will be charged to cover costs.

The city's tax sale of about 4,000 properties begins on May 10, but the sale of selected homes to be auctioned free of taxes and liens will be held on May 12 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"This really is an experiment, we don't know if it's going to work," said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

Mr. Germroth said city officials hope the properties will be purchased by families or landlords who intend to rent them to families.

Mr. Henson said neighborhoods with vacant properties that would benefit by the sale include Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore and Mideast in East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He added that the housing department also would like to use federal grants to turn around the 600 vacant properties that it owns.

Ms. Clarke hailed the program as innovative.

"We said we're going to make vacant houses a priority, and this is step one," she said. "If it doesn't end up being house beautiful, it will look better than sitting there vacant."

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