Habitat for Humanity to buy 24 vacant houses in Pigtown

Goal is to provide homes for low-income families

December 24, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Pigtown in Southwest Baltimore has gentrified to the point that City Hall has tried to give it the ritzier name of Washington Village, but dozens of vacant houses continue to blight the area still best known for its slaughterhouse past.

Turning abandoned houses into livable homes can be almost as difficult as shaking an unflattering-but-catchy nickname, but that is expected to happen to 24 properties in the neighborhood.

The city plans to sell the rowhouses to Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity as part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Project 5000, a plan to return 5,000 vacant homes to productive use.

Terms of the deal have not been worked out, but city officials say the plan shows the value of the project, which for three years has sought to obtain ownership, or clear title, to abandoned houses so that they can be sold and redeveloped.

"They were stuck," said David Levy, an assistant housing commissioner, referring to the houses. "If we can `unstuck' them, we can do good things."

Mike Mitchell, executive director of Habitat, said the sale would give low-income families the chance to live in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

"This project is an opportunity for our organization to ensure that affordable home-ownership opportunities remain available in a community going through rapid gentrification," he said.

Even though the houses were abandoned and the owners owe back taxes, , taking title to them has involved a lengthy legal process because of laws meant to protect property owners from unwarranted government seizure.

The city has sought to clear thousands of titles since January 2002, when O'Malley announced his goal of gaining control of 5,000 of the city's 14,000 abandoned homes within two years. Acquisitions have been slower than expected, so the city began offering some properties for sale before it gained full legal control of them, with the assumption that the titles would be clear in time to complete the sales.

About a quarter of the Pigtown properties to be sold to Habitat still have clouded titles, but those problems are expected to be resolved within 45 days, said David Tillman, a city housing spokesman.

In the meantime, the city and Habitat need to agree on selling prices for the Pigtown properties, which are near the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

After inviting individuals and groups to offer plans for the properties, the city recently chose Habitat's proposal. It calls for redeveloping the houses for low-income families, who will work alongside Habitat volunteers to rehabilitate Habitat houses as part of the deal.

Tillman said the city would not necessarily seek fair market value from Habitat, but rather an "equitable return" for the properties.

"This is not a dollar house," Tillman said, referring to a 1970s program that virtually gave away property in Fells Point, Otterbein and Barre Circle.

The deal is subject to approval from the city's Board of Estimates.

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