Property seizure program on track

O'Malley says city will hold titles to 4,500 vacant homes by June

`We set a very ... ambitious goal'

January 16, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley is close to making good on one of his boldest promises: to take control of 5,000 abandoned Baltimore properties so they can be put to productive use.

The city has gained clear title to 2,250 houses and is on track to have another 2,250 in its hands by June, city officials said yesterday.

That would be 500 houses short and about six months behind the schedule O'Malley laid out in his State of the City address in January 2002, when he vowed to take the houses within two years.

But given the size of Project 5000 - believed to be one of the largest initiatives of its kind nationwide - city officials say they're pleased with the progress.

"Two years ago, we set a very, very ambitious goal considering that, in the past, we had taken an average of 200 properties per year. We increased that tenfold," O'Malley said. " ... It's not going to be 200 properties moving forward. It will be 2,000 every year.

"These properties will once again be an asset for - not a blight on - our communities. And many more will follow."

O'Malley said the total would reach 6,000 by year end.

The project is expected to cost up to $5 million - a figure held down by about $5 million in in-kind contributions of legal work, title searches and other services from private firms. The sheriff's department dropped the $30 it charges to post a foreclosure notice. City courts waived the $110-per-case filing fee.

Concentrated in east, west and northwest Baltimore, the properties will be sold or donated to developers, community groups or individuals. Redevelopment plans range from tearing down whole blocks for biotechnology labs, suburban-style housing or an enlarged Great Blacks in Wax Museum to rehabbing individual rowhouses, creating tiny "pocket" parks and building a church parking lot.

The initiative appears to be one of the most ambitious in the nation, said William Apgar, senior scholar at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. Similar programs have been implemented in Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y., Detroit and Milwaukee, he said.

"Nobody else took this challenge on," Apgar said. "There are a lot of properties stacking up in other cities that aren't being addressed, Philadelphia, many of the Midwest cities. So Baltimore's moving on it."

Sandra J. Newman, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies and an expert in housing policy, considers Baltimore's program successful because so many properties have been acquired.

"I am hopeful," she said. "These are very, very difficult problems and they're going to take quite a while to resolve, but I think we're taking a very significant step."

The mayor's promise was warmly welcomed in a city blighted by about 14,000 derelict houses, but people who expected the wrecking ball to start swinging right after the State of the City address were disappointed. Even though many of the properties were abandoned and in tax arrears, the city has had to slog through a protracted tax sale foreclosure process to take them.

Laws intended to protect property owners from unwarranted government seizure make it difficult for cities to gain control of abandoned property, Apgar said.

"If this were easy, they wouldn't have been stacking up in your neighborhoods," he said.

In choosing which houses to target, city officials looked at some of the most desolate corners of the city, but also at neighborhoods where a few distressed properties threatened to pull them down.

Michael Bainum, director of Project 5000, said Reservoir Hill was an example of "building on strength." The relatively stable neighborhood of 1,400 has 300 vacant homes. The city will acquire 85 percent of them through the project.

"I think many other cities are going to look for us for lessons on how to turn some of this dead capital into productive property for the community," Bainum said.

Some people have mistaken the program for a repeat of the 1970s dollar-house program that helped reclaim neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Otterbein and Barre Circle. That initiative moved much more quickly because many of the properties had been obtained by eminent domain for a highway project that was later abandoned.

Real estate speculators who thought they could scoop up properties in Federal Hill, Locust Point and Canton saw their hopes dashed. The neighborhoods with the most Project 5000 properties are Middle East, Sandtown-Winchester, Upton, Broadway East and Oliver.

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