Program acquiring vacant properties loses momentum

7 months after deadline, city holds title to less than half of desired 5,000 lots

August 01, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambitious plan to gain control of 5,000 abandoned properties has slowed considerably since January, when the city announced that it had nearly half of the properties in hand.

Baltimore officials said at the time that they had gained clear title to 2,250 houses and vacant lots and expected to take an equal number by June.

As of last month, however, the city has acquired only 33 more Project 5000 properties.

Housing officials say the slower-than-expected acquisitions will not delay the project's ultimate goal, which is to return the properties to productive use.

The city has begun offering some properties for sale even before it gains full legal control of them, with the assumption that the titles will be clear in time to complete the sales.

"We don't need to actually have the title in order to do what we're doing on the development side," said Douglass Austin, deputy housing commissioner. "We're still going ahead with the [request for proposals to buy the properties]. We're still going to make awards. We don't expect any slowdown at all in the development side."

While the acquisitions are ultimately needed to complete sales, housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the city is moving ahead to line up buyers for the properties.

"We're open for business, big or small, one house at a time or large tracts of land," Graziano said. "And our goal is to strengthen the neighborhoods of the city."

In his State of the City address in January 2002, O'Malley unveiled a plan to take control of 5,000 of the city's 14,000 abandoned properties within the following two years.

When the deadline arrived in January, city officials said they were behind schedule but not by much. They said they would have clear title to 4,500 properties by June.

That would have been just 500 properties short and six months behind the original goal for what is known around City Hall as "P5K," a project that housing experts say is one of the largest of its kind nationwide.

In January, O'Malley vowed to expand the program, saying the city would acquire 6,000 properties by the end of this year.

But acquisitions have moved more slowly since then. It took the city two years to clear title to the first 2,250 properties. It took seven months to clear the next 33. If that pace is any guide, the city would take only 113 in another two years.

Slowdown

Austin said progress was slowed in part because some housing staff had to be taken off the project temporarily to work on a tax sale that allowed the city to foreclose on 500 properties.

Those houses and lots are not part of Project 5000, which targeted specific properties whose redevelopment could help shore up relatively stable neighborhoods around the city. Austin said Baltimore will still benefit from the foreclosures because they allow the city to make the properties available for redevelopment.

Even though many of the Project 5000 properties are abandoned and in tax arrears, taking title to them involves a lengthy legal process. Laws intended to protect property owners from unwarranted government seizure make it difficult for cities to gain control of abandoned property, housing experts say.

The cases have moved more slowly than expected through Baltimore's Circuit Court, Austin said. The city, which gave the court $72,000 to hire more workers in the clerk's and special master's office, plans to give $47,000 more to further increase staff.

"They've never done this before at this scale," Austin said. "They're adjusting to this huge mongoose going through the snake."

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway said the delay was not on his end.

"There's no holdup in the clerk's office," he said. "If there's a bottleneck, it's someplace other than the clerk's office."

Even given the slowdown, the project remains highly regarded among housing policy experts such as Sandra J. Newman, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

`Very impressed'

"I am very impressed by that," she said, referring to the 2,283 acquisitions. "Other cities have tried this and have not succeeded as well as Baltimore has. Baltimore is the leader in this. Certainly, they've set their sights on a pretty dramatic goal, and with all of the intricacies involved in trying to pull this off, they were a bit more optimistic than it turned out to be."

At the same time, Newman said, it is important to understand what has happened "if the process was moving somewhat faster before."

The housing department's Web site gives no indication that acquisitions have slowed.

Until last week, the Project 5000 page said that the city program had "acquired 4,526 properties." There was an asterisk beside "acquired" meant to modify what the word means: "Cases pending, completed or expected."

The site also said the city is "on pace to acquire nearly 6,000 properties by year's end."

Those phrases have recently been removed from the site, which now says there are "4,911 acquisitions in process."

The city is offering 179 Project 5000 properties for sale, and it plans to offer about 400 more by November, even though their titles won't be clear yet. The title work is expected to be completed by the time city and community leaders sign off on development plans for particular properties -- a process that could take months.

The city has already sold or given away 500 of the Project 5000 properties. By the end of the year, Austin expects that number to reach 1,500.

If acquisitions lag in the meantime, he said, that's nothing to worry about.

"Nobody really cares if we acquire a lot of property and nothing happens to it," he said. "Then it just moves from one owner to another and the neighborhood's no better off. The real test is getting these properties back into productive use."

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