Selling neighborhoods, not just houses

April 24, 1995

It's difficult to put much hope in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's latest proposal to auction off houses as a means to restore vitality to Baltimore's declining neighborhoods. This will be the mayor's third attempt with this tactic.

Earlier he chose some of the most deteriorated abandoned houses in Baltimore to auction, hoping the rock-bottom prices they would sell for would boost interest. But a complex foreclosure process led to only 350 of 1,500 vacant houses being sold in 1993. And in a similar auction last April, only 52 of 125 houses sold and 13 of those bidders failed to qualify for mortgages.

The last auction also saw the city spend $4 million to renovate 42 of the houses, but the buyers only paid $1.8 million for them.

Housing Commissioner Dan Henson says the expense is not as important as getting families into these houses, so their residence can help stabilize neighborhoods on the verge of despair. But it's that ultimate goal that makes the mayor's latest auction proposal appear destined for failure as well.

This time he proposes to auction 50 homes in more middle-class settings that have been listed by real estate agents but have languished on the market without being bought for at least three months.

The quality of the houses was a major problem with the last two auctions. Mr. Schmoke will find out with the next auction that a bigger culprit is quality of life in the city.

The real estate agents the mayor plans to work with before the auction in June will tell him they don't sell just houses, they sell neighborhoods.

He will find out that some of the houses to be auctioned haven't sold because buyers don't like what they see. And what they see is the same thing the mayor does, that the neighborhoods these houses are in are themselves in trouble.

Buffetted by encroaching crime, left grimy by lax street sanitation and saddled with ineffective schools, the highest property taxes and oppressive car insurance rates, these neighborhoods are a tough sale no matter how good their houses look.

Toss into the mix today's middle-class homebuyers' preference for wider houses with bigger yards and two-car garages and Mr. Schmoke may actually find houses in his next auction even harder to sell. Maybe his time would be better spent addressing the neighborhood problems that would make any house appear unattractive.

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