A gauge of the city's distress

Tax sale: Large number of real estate properties go for auction block because of delinquent liens.

March 24, 2001

THIS YEAR'S inventory of tax-delinquent real estate in Baltimore City is mind-boggling. It takes 144 tabloid pages to list the more than 38,000 properties that will be sold at auction May 14 through 17.

Some of those are highly desirable buildings and lots. Speculators fight to bid on them. The reason: Successful bidders can reap an easy 18 percent profit when lax owners finally get around to redeeming the liens.

For example, speculators know full well that John D. Hubble, the city's real estate officer, will cough up the $2,754 -- plus interest -- he owes on two of his Maryland Avenue properties. If he fails to do so within six months, foreclosure procedures can be initiated.

Many properties on the tax-sale list, though, are abandoned rowhouses or empty lots. Some owners have given up on them; others have moved out of state, are institutionalized or dead.

Why would anyone even consider redeeming $144,646 worth of liens on an abandoned West Baltimore rowhouse assessed at $8,476?

Listing such properties for tax sale is absurd. In fact, since the city effectively owns such properties anyway, it should have taken title a long time ago.

Mayor Martin O'Malley is in the process of creating an office of acquisitions to do just that. But his administration also should overhaul the whole tax sale process.

The current setup is a charade. Liens against problem properties are not redeemed. They just stay in the hands of negligent owners as higher liens keep accruing.

The city needs to launch a major drive to gain title to derelict properties. Once those properties are under city ownership, unrealistic liens should be purged, and the houses and lots sold outright to the highest bidder for redevelopment.

For a cash-strapped city, this revenue enhancer is a no-brainer.

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