City's Troubled Fire Sale

May 05, 1993

When will Baltimore get its act together? We are asking this question because of the utter confusion surrounding the city's commendable initiative to auction off tax-delinquent abandoned houses.

The intention, as outlined by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and other top officials, was to augment this year's regular two-day tax sale with a special auction of about 1,500 abandoned houses. Those properties were to be sold at the Convention Center May 12 with their back DTC taxes and liens removed to encourage their quick rehabilitation and return to the housing market as habitable units.

This was a splendid idea, which recalled the successful urban homesteading experiment Baltimore City conducted 20 years ago. But no sooner was it announced when City Hall bureaucrats began issuing denials. The mayor and City Council president had misspoken, they insisted.

After several days of conflicting interpretations, the Department of Housing and Community Development released its version of the guidelines of the forthcoming auction. According to the HCD press release, only liens and tax penalties would be eliminated from those 1,500 vacant and abandoned properties. The successful bidder still was to pay net taxes plus $85 in administrative costs.

But wait! Late yesterday afternoon, HCD press people alerted the media to hold off. A new release was being issued to correct the previous one. The mayor and City Council president had not misspoken after all and back taxes will be waived.

This is the most remarkable demonstration of public incompetence we have seen in a long time. The public has been confused. As a result, what seemed like a promising endeavor to get vacant houses rehabilitated may be in danger -- even before it is tried.

Only a bureaucrat would understand what this hemming and hawing was all about. Let's face it: Most of the 1,500 abandoned properties to be auctioned off May 12 currently have a negative market value. That's why they have ended up in the tax sale year after year. The city should be grateful if it finds anyone willing to take them with a promise to fix them up.

Two decades ago, Baltimore City auctioned off shells of houses for $1. That program was successful in transforming neighborhoods. It was simple and understandable. If the newly issued ground rules stick for the May 12 auction, perhaps we will have another successful program.

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