Baltimore City's annual sale of tax delinquent properties is a colorful affair that has long been popular among speculators. The speculators are often organized in syndicates which buy hundreds of houses sight unseen, hoping their original owners will come up with the back taxes and pay the speculators the required 24 percent interest.
While this is exactly what happens in many cases, some houses keep coming up in the annual tax sales year after year. Most of those houses are marginal properties, usually vacant and abandoned. The city has ended up controlling many of them; others keep on going from one tax sale to the next without any effort being made to fix them up.
The municipal government is now trying to change all this.
During this year's tax sale, which begins May 10 at the Convention Center, a day has been added to sell 1,500 selected vacant properties. On May 12, they will be auctioned to the highest bidder without the kind of heavy load of back taxes and liens which often have scared rehabilitators away. "This is the first time we will be able to offer them at their market rate," says xTC Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
This is an exciting renewal experiment that is long overdue. Although many vacant properties are in such bad neighborhoods and derelict condition that serious renovators are not interested in them, others have redevelopment potential. If the price is right, someone may acquire them and fix them up.
Like many other municipalities, Baltimore City favors big rehabilitation projects by major developers. There is nothing sinister about this. Bureaucrats simply find it easier to deal with players who have a proven track record and who know the intricacies of doing often difficult inner-city jobs. But many community activists believe that true neighborhood renewal is best achieved by individuals doing small but visible projects which, in turn, encourage others to stay or invest in a marginal neighborhood.
We are convinced that if Baltimore City's vacant house problem is to be successfully attacked, it can be done only by harnessing the skills, interests and resources of the little people. The May 12 auction is a good step in the right direction. But it should only be the first step. The city also needs to provide help for people undertaking these projects. Low-interest loans and counseling would be a good place to start.