Cut needless red tape

October 21, 2002

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley's 10-month-old campaign to parcel out 5,000 vacant properties for redevelopment is attracting nationwide attention. It is moving ahead, while Philadelphia has stalled in its far more ambitious attempt to demolish 14,000 vacant buildings, rehabilitate 4,500 distressed homes and construct 2,000 housing units.

These are early days, though. Baltimore, too, could still stall. That's why Mayor O'Malley must move aggressively to simplify the process used to acquire vacant and abandoned properties. Some of the streamlining can be done by the city, but some will require changes in state laws in Annapolis.

The tax sale process is a case in point: Even for abandoned houses, it is unnecessarily cumbersome, time-consuming and unpredictable. The reason: A tax auction is not a final sale; it only gives the winning bidder an option to seek foreclosure in the courts, which can take up to 18 months.

Each year, the city recoups millions of dollars in back taxes and liens by auctioning off delinquent properties. The downside is that thousands of derelict properties never attract bidders; no one wants to touch them or redeem their arrears. This summer, the city for the first time separated such problem properties from the regular tax sale. They were auctioned off in bundles to bidders likely to put them back on the tax rolls.

This was a step in the right direction. The challenge now is to get through the legal foreclosure process. The city is training volunteer lawyers to help in the task. But already, the Circuit Court is worried that the huge volume of filings will overwhelm it.

Tax sale foreclosures are complicated and contentious matters that involve individuals' property rights and other delicate issues. But when leading title lawyers complain that the process is unnecessarily abstruse, it's time to find ways to streamline it. Baltimore will not diminish its vacant house problem unless it can develop a more efficient process to allow new ownership.

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