Attack on vacant houses

January 02, 2003

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley is to be applauded for choosing to make a $1 million investment in the city's future well-being. Despite criticism that this ought not to be done in hard times, he has earmarked that money to hire 21 paralegals, clerks, lawyers and real estate agents to expedite acquisition of abandoned properties.

This is seed money toward success.

The more the mayor progresses in his plan to renovate or demolish 5,000 such houses, the more the city stands to benefit. Every vacant house that is turned into profitable new use will widen the tax base. Not only that, policing and fire costs decrease whenever a derelict house no longer harbors criminals, addicts, vandals and arsonists.

The vacant house plague is one of Baltimore's most intractable problems. Few developments would serve the city so well as an effective mechanism to simplify the currently cumbersome, unpredictable and time-consuming process of acquiring abandoned properties.

Over the past three decades, no one has been able to do that. The reason: A tax auction, where delinquent properties are disposed of each year, is not a final sale. Instead, it gives the winning bidder an option to seek foreclosure in the courts. That process can take up to 18 months. Even then, transfer of title is not assured.

Consider this: In 1994, the city spent some $300,000 to hire an Atlanta-based auction house to sell 175 vacant houses. The goal was to revive blighted neighborhoods. For that money, expensive color brochures were printed, a home festival held, and 60 houses sold for bids ranging from $25,000 to more than $60,000.

Eric Goods, a 46-year-old surveyor for the federal government, is one of the few bidders who persisted through the bureaucratic nightmares that followed and actually acquired a home. He is still happy with his three-story rowhouse in the 200 block of E. Lafayette Ave., but has heard the horror stories of others who gave up.

Mayor O'Malley's ambitious plan, announced a year ago, was the first systematic attempt to develop a reliable procedure for acquiring vacant eyesores. Naively, though, he thought that lawyers and paralegals would donate their time to do the huge amount of tedious and unglamorous title work. They didn't. With a full-time complement of specialists, the city may be better positioned to face the daunting challenge.

The mayor now ought to approach foundations and legal experts for advice on how other localities have simplified their acquisition processes. Yes, private property rights must be respected, but the city ought to have a quicker way to take over problem properties whenever unpaid liens exceed their appraised value. Baltimore will make no real progress in tackling the vacant house problem as long as this fundamental obstacle blocks redevelopment.

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