Secrets waiting to be told 4 tax-credit programs are in place but homebuyer must ask

Silence at City Hall

Voices on the phone do seem to be edging toward helpfulness

February 09, 1997|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Well, at least this year when George Nilson hung up the phone with the City of Baltimore he was a bit more encouraged.

This time, he said, the person on the other end was somewhat knowledgeable. Last year the response was "utterly unhelpful and uninformed."

And that is what gets Nilson, president of the Baltimore Homeowners Coalition, miffed. The city has several tax-credit programs in place, but, according to Nilson, they are some of the best-kept secrets at City Hall.

"There were four taxpayer programs that the coalition has been involved in getting passed," he said. "One of the things that was unfortunate was that, while there was an initial flourish of activity when the city announced these programs -- and I might add that the mayor and administration took credit for these programs that in fact [they] had opposed -- there's been almost nothing to publicize the existence of these programs."

The four main programs that Nilson cites are:

Rehabilitated vacant dwellings tax-credit program.

When an owner-occupant or contractor completes rehabbing a vacant house, the city will allow a five-year tax credit, starting at 100 percent for the first year and 20 percent in year five.

Home improvement tax-credit program.

This protects homeowners against property tax increases through increased assessments due to home improvements. Again, the city will allow a five-year credit, starting at 100 percent for the first year and 20 percent in year five.

The Waverly neighborhood tax-credit program.

This allows homebuyers who purchase in certain parts of Waverly and Better Waverly to get a tax credit equal to 80 percent of property taxes the first five years, it then reduces 5 percent for each year thereafter until a total of 10 years' occupancy is completed.

The newly constructed dwelling tax-credit program.

When purchasing a new home, the city has a five-year program that allows homeowners to reduce their tax liability 50 percent the first year down to 10 percent in year five.

The programs are featured in a brochure printed by the city and most recently updated and distributed in May 1995. But just having the brochures available, in Nilson's estimation, does not constitute mass publicity.

"The city was to be actively promoting these programs, and we made some inquiries a year ago just to see if 'John Q. Citizen' calling in about taxpayer programs whether we would ever find out what was there, and we were really horrified at our inability -- even knowing the right phone numbers -- horrified to find out how difficult and impossible it was even in response to a taxpayer inquiry to find out what programs existed and what they were," Nilson said.

A call by The Sun to the number on the brochure (545-7283),

which had a suffix acronym of "SAVE," was answered by the city employee with the salutation of, "Collections."

The employee did, however, have knowledge of tax-credit programs by reading from the brochure, but also added, "the mortgage company that you deal with when you go to the Realtor, they should be pretty familiar with the credits."

Said Nilson: "It would be helpful if that person who answers that phone really was familiar in detail with the program and could answer some questions and could do more than just send you an application."

However, Zack Germroth, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, strongly disagreed.

"It [the program] has not been promoted on a predictable basis, but we have done a ton of promotions, including TV, press conferences and so forth and so on," Germroth said.

"Others are getting more exposure than others, but, quite frankly, a lot work better than others. It's just the nature of the beast."

According to Germroth, the city has sent nearly 180,000 brochures to homeowners in the city as well as to mortgage lenders, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and nonprofit groups in the city.

Even though Germroth said that the new housing tax credit was enjoying great success (152 approved), the start of the program apparently went unnoticed by one of the area's most recognizable builders.

Ryland Homes, the metropolitan area's second largest builder, which has projects in the Woodlands at Coldspring and Montgomery Square in Federal Hill and will soon build townhouses in Barre Station near the new football stadium, had no knowledge that there was a city tax credit -- until learning it from another builder -- Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse.

"The city didn't keep reminding us about it," said Maurice Simpkins, vice president for public affairs, who has a close working association with Ryland's city projects.

"We were in Montgomery Square, and the [Struever Brothers] guy in the Woodlands said, 'Hey, you ought to be taking advantage of the tax credits [as a marketing tool].' "

Simpkins said it was too late for homebuyers in Montgomery Square to take advantage of the tax credit because Ryland had pulled its building permits for its townhouses before Oct. 1, 1994.

To be eligible for the new construction tax credit, building per- mits would have to be issued on or after that date.

Once armed with the knowledge, Ryland was able to advise its single-home buyers in the Woodlands, since building permits are issued one at a time, and Simpkins said potential buyers at Barre Sta- tion will be informed.

"I think [the credits] could be more widely promoted," Simpkins said.

"People, at least our people, didn't generally come in with knowledge of that tax credit. But when we found out about it, it was very effective."

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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