Housing plan gaining speed and on track

Goal of city's Project 5000 is to rehab derelict houses

`Not an immediate thing'

3,900 properties selected

foreclosure process long

September 01, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Seven months after Mayor Martin O'Malley vowed to take control of thousands of abandoned houses, the city has identified most of the properties and is taking the first steps toward foreclosure.

One of the boldest promises of the O'Malley administration, the plan also has been among the slowest to get started. The city has had trouble attracting much of the free legal help it was counting on for the job.

But officials say Project 5000 is on track and gaining speed now that they have nearly completed the painstaking task of picking which 5,000 of the city's 14,000 derelict houses will be targeted.

The goal is to have control of the properties by the end of next year and make them available to private developers, nonprofits and individual buyers for redevelopment.

"For years and years we were content to let people abandon big parts of our city and then didn't do anything to step in," O'Malley said. "This effort is all about taking ownership of Baltimore again."

The city will take a big step toward accomplishing that goal this month, when it holds a tax sale for 1,100 tax-delinquent properties. The 1,100 are part of the 3,900 properties the city has selected. Through the sale Sept. 18, the city expects to obtain tax-sale certificates that will enable it to begin foreclosure proceedings.

Even with the certificates in hand, it will be months, perhaps more than a year, before the first foreclosures are complete and the city has title to the properties.

That lag is a surprise to would-be buyers who thought the project was a simple matter of rolling in a wrecking ball and letting it swing.

When O'Malley announced the initiative in his State of the City address in January, some imagined Project 5000 would be a repeat of the 1970s dollar-house program that helped reclaim neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Otterbein and Barre Circle. That initiative had a leg up because many of the houses had been obtained by eminent domain for a highway project that was later abandoned, city officials said.

"We get calls because people have read in the paper about Project 5000 and say, `How do we get those houses?' And we don't know," said Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore, an agency that promotes city living. "I know people will get frustrated and say it's not moving fast enough. But man, they are on the fast track."

The fast track can look more like slow motion when the work is untangling titles, officials said. And just selecting the properties has been a huge task, one that involved sophisticated computer mapping and consumed 81 hours of meetings in March and April, said Israel C. "Izzy" Patoka, director of the mayor's Office of Neighborhoods.

"This is not an immediate thing," assistant housing commissioner JoAnn Copes said. "It's not like, `Gee, you want to sell me your house? We can go to closing tomorrow.' ... It is complex. But we have taken a measured approached to this, so we have a good game plan."

Housing officials have not released a list of the 3,900 properties they have chosen but said they are located all over the city, in 92 neighborhoods. About 60 percent are in two troubled areas - East and West Baltimore. About 21 percent are in central Baltimore.

In making their selections, housing officials were not necessarily going after the worst housing. Whole blocks will be demolished and rebuilt in some areas, but the city also wants to pick off single vacant houses that threaten to pull down otherwise stable blocks.

The city is trying to build on existing strength, picking areas that are on the edge of development. On the east side, that includes large swaths north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, where a biotech park is planned. On the west side, it covers a few blocks near Heritage Crossing, a 260-unit townhouse complex going up on the site of the former George B. Murphy Homes.

To determine which were the best houses, the city sent out letters to more than 700 community groups, asking them to suggest properties and potential reuses. City officials and community leaders also pored over computer images of every city block during the March and April meetings. The maps showed not only vacancies, but how much crime was in the area, how many houses were owner-occupied and whether taxes have been paid on them.

"It was the best use of technology that I've ever seen in city government - ever," said Denise M. Duval, who was deputy housing commissioner until July, when she resigned for family reasons.

As painstaking as the selection process was, city officials say the hardest part is still before them: foreclosure.

To foreclose on a property, the city must demonstrate in Circuit Court that it made every effort to contact everyone with an ownership interest, and show that no one came forward to claim it.

Simple enough, unless the owners are dead or hard to track down - which is the case more often than not, officials said.

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