Lower liens on city homes Council plan: Dramatic measures required to stem abandonment of Baltimore houses.

April 16, 1997

CITY HOUSING Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III likes to point out that Baltimore's abandoned housing crisis doesn't stem from the hefty tax liens it placed on properties. But as a recent Sun series by John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner pointed out, it certainly exacerbates the problem by making liens so onerous with interest charges that few, if any, can afford to pay that bill plus the tab to repair a ramshackle shell.

Baltimore's 24 percent annual interest charge on overdue city tax liens is the highest in Maryland. Third District Councilman Martin O'Malley has introduced a bill to reduce it to 6 percent. That may swing too far in the opposite direction, but a lower rate is in order. The city must do what it can to make vacant houses and lots affordable.

Using liens to punish uncaring property owners who have allowed their houses to deteriorate has not worked. Rather than pay the liens, many owners abandon their houses. At least 2,800 residential properties in Baltimore are carrying liens that equal or exceed their assessed value. In cases where it would spur property repairs, the city should simply forgive liens. Most of the $52 million owed is lien money that will never materialize.

Taking a more sensible approach on liens doesn't mean the city should retreat from serious code enforcement and citation of deteriorating properties. Neighbors who struggle to keep their homes in good repair shouldn't have to live next to a house whose owner has given up trying. When the city steps in, though, it should take the best approach to get a house rehabilitated and avert abandonment.

Housing officials are moving to a policy in which more developers, especially non-profits, are allowed to acquire houses fair-market value without paying off the liens. More latitude also must be given to individual homeowners who show a commitment to repair their houses if given time or financial assistance. The city must change a system that now encourages speculators to acquire properties, keep them abandoned and make a profit on the lucrative interest from the liens.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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