Bidding for bargain houses

May 14, 1993

The city's experimental sale of 1,500 vacant houses this week drew so many bids the auction has to be continued next Tuesday. And, if buyer interest continues, even the extra day may not be enough time to unload those properties.

"There was a bid for every single house that was put up," a jubilant Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke reported. "We are really looking forward to getting all those 1,500 houses auctioned off."

This truly is splendid news. And it vindicates the mayor and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who had to do some serious arm-twisting to convince municipal bean counters that the auction would be successful only if back taxes and other past delinquencies were waived on the vacant houses. Thankfully, the top elected officials prevailed, and now they can bask in all the media glory.

It is one thing, however, to auction off these houses and quite another one to get them rehabilitated and returned to habitable form.

Indeed, successful bidders at this week's auction and buyers at Tuesday's sale at the Convention Center will not automatically acquire the title to a property. They only buy the right to file a foreclosure suit against the current owners in Baltimore Circuit Court.

To give the delinquent owners a chance for last-minute redemption, those suits cannot be filed before mid-July and will cost the bidders an estimated $1,000 in legal and filing fees.

Some successful bidders unquestionably will decide not to exercise their foreclosure right. That probably is a likelier scenario than having crowds of scofflaw landlords suddenly rushing in to redeem their long-overdue taxes and liens on

properties that often have a negative market value.

Some bidders may give up after finding out that fixing up a vacant shell in a marginal neighborhood takes more money and trouble than they ever imagined. But for each such abortive effort, there will probably be a person who will persevere. Even if only a portion of the 1,500 vacant houses gets rehabilitated, that is better than having them sitting abandoned as targets for vandals, arsonists and drug addicts.

The city says it will make an effort to monitor what happens to the vacant properties sold at the auction. But if this experimental sale is to be really successful, the city ought to make sure would-be rehabilitators are referred to non-profit housing organizations and other resource pools, which can help them with repair problems and refer them to reputable construction specialists.

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