Differing views on housing problem

Tufaro favors tax cut to keep families from moving out of city

O'Malley focuses on safety

October 22, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

One of the biggest tasks facing Baltimore's next mayor will be trying to slow and perhaps reverse the tide of migration that has seen some 90,000 residents pack up and move out of the city since 1990.

Republican nominee David F. Tufaro and Democrat Martin O'Malley offer different perspectives on how the city should persuade more families to remain and buy or rent homes in the city.

Tufaro, a developer from Roland Park, says the city's staggeringly high real estate taxes discourage home buyers. He advocates a 40 percent tax cut over four years -- bringing it to the level of Baltimore County -- to help stimulate the city's real estate market.

O'Malley, a city councilman from Northeast Baltimore and former prosecutor, argues that cracking down on drug dealing is more important. He points to Canton and Guilford as examples of neighborhoods where the real estate market has boomed despite high taxes because the streets are safe.

Beyond this philosophical difference, the two candidates share many beliefs about the problems that have left the city with some 40,000 vacant or abandoned houses.

Both said they would avoid demolishing single, vacant homes scattered in blighted areas around the city.

O'Malley says the city would more likely succeed by rebuilding whole blocks in depressed areas. Tufaro emphasizes focusing the city's limited resources on neighborhoods that have potential.

Both candidates say the city needs to improve public schools, halt the construction of billboards that tarnish neighborhoods and perhaps reintroduce a successful 1970s program that offered houses to people for $1 if they pledged to fix them and live in them for five years.

Commissioner resigning

Both will have to search for a new housing commissioner to replace Daniel P. Henson III, who is resigning after a six-year term notable for his demolition of high-rise public housing towers and thousands of vacant homes.

"It's a very complex subject, because it is impossible to deal with Baltimore's housing problem in isolation," said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which takes legal action to improve the city's housing. "You have to deal with a whole collection of other problems first -- the city's public schools, public safety and quality of life."

Tracy Gosson, director of a nonprofit organization called Live Baltimore that promotes homeownership in the city, said the next mayor should build on the city's successes.

Over the past two years, the city has approved grant and loan programs to help buyers with closing costs, and this appears to have helped boost sales, Gosson said.

Real estate agents sold 20 percent more houses (5,780) in the city last year than in 1997 (4,822). And they sold 7 percent more houses in the first half of this year than in the first half of last year, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a data bank used by real estate agents.

O'Malley said financial incentives won't persuade families to live in unsafe neighborhoods. He promises to dramatically change police policy to get officers out of cars and drug dealers off street corners.

"We already have tax incentives for homeownership in the city, but nobody wants to move into an area where they have drug dealers harassing them on the way to their homes," O'Malley said. "You could build the Taj Mahal, but if the neighborhood isn't safe, nobody would move into it."

Despite the city's high taxes compared to the surrounding suburban counties, home sales are strong in neighborhoods like Canton that are not overrun by drug dealers, O'Malley said.

Tufaro says he agrees that crime is important in driving people out of the city and wants police to work with community groups to create priority lists of what types of crimes they want police to crack down on. But Tufaro says O'Malley's approach is too simplistic and ignores the anger people feel about high taxes.

Rates in surrounding areas

The yearly taxes on a $100,000 home in Baltimore ($2,412) are 57 percent higher than in Anne Arundel County ($1,028 per year), up to 50 percent higher than in Howard County (from $1,216 to $1,340 per year) and 40 percent higher than in Baltimore County ($1,460 per year), according to municipal tax offices.

Baltimore's real estate taxes are high even compared to other depopulating industrial cities of a similar size. The city's taxes are 42 percent higher than in St. Louis (where the owner of a $100,000 home pays $1,388 a year) and 20 percent higher than in Cleveland ($1,915), according to tax offices in those cities.

"If you got rid of all of the crime in Baltimore, you'd still have all these vacant houses remaining in the city," Tufaro said. "You also have to significantly lower the tax rates and improve the schools to encourage people to live here."

Over four years, Tufaro wants to slice Baltimore's tax rate to about the level of St. Louis or Baltimore County.

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