Sales slow for city's vacant properties

Blaming market, officials put fewer lots up for grabs

August 25, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore's housing department has significantly slowed the process of offering city-owned properties for redevelopment in the past several months, potentially jeopardizing the city's ability to draw private investment into poor neighborhoods that need it most.

After years of amassing abandoned homes and buildings with the hope of spurring renewal in the city's most blighted neighborhoods, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development now appears to be decelerating at least three programs once used to put that property back on the tax rolls.

The slowdown in the pace by which city-owned properties are put up for sale raises questions about whether Mayor Sheila Dixon has made a priority out of developing Baltimore's vast stockpile of vacant buildings and empty lots - be it for the rehab of a single rowhouse or a large-scale project intended to attract dozens of families.

Housing officials note that the overall real-estate market has slowed - making it harder for everyone, including the city, to sell property. And while they may be making fewer offerings now, officials said the Dixon administration is considering new ways to unload the thousands of properties the city owns that may make the process faster in the future.

"We understand the softness in the market right now, and we don't want to swamp the market," said the city's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano. "We want to focus on those viable projects that are moving forward now."

In February - weeks after Dixon took office - the housing department created a new division focused on "neighborhood investment" that, according to the city's Web site, was "designed to speed up disposition of city-owned property." But a review of several months' worth of housing development projects suggests that the opposite has occurred.

In one program, called SCOPE, that is used to sell individual properties in relatively strong neighborhoods, the number of lots added to the sales pipeline dropped from roughly 106 in 2006 to none so far this year. Before this year, the department had steadily increased the number of properties it put into the SCOPE program.

"It's almost as if that program is being abolished, dismantled or just phased out," said Neil Abraham, a real-estate agent who had previously worked with SCOPE, which stands for selling city-owned properties efficiently. "It at least presented a sense of hope. Since the leadership has changed, it is virtually gone."

Another method used to sell city-owned property - the "request for proposals" process - has also dried up in recent months. Last year, the housing department issued eight such requests, including one for a 4-acre site in the Penn North neighborhood and another for a seven-parcel site along East Lombard Street.

Graziano argued that the city has issued one such request this year - a large-scale development of more than 150 properties in the Oliver neighborhood - though the process being used in that case is slightly different. In Oliver, a developer initiated the process by approaching the city with a proposal. The city then offered the properties before moving forward with the deal to make sure a better offer did not come along.

On its own initiation, however, the housing department has not issued a single request this year.

Several sources in the development community told The Sun that they have noticed a slowdown from the housing department since Dixon became mayor in January to serve out the remainder of Gov. Martin O'Malley's mayoral term, but they declined to comment on the record because many of them do business with City Hall and fear retribution.

The drop-off, those sources said, corresponds with staff shakeups that have taken place in the past several months, including the appointment or promotion of longtime Dixon allies.

The mayor denied having any involvement with how staff members were placed within the housing department.

In February, the department created the neighborhood investment division, which took control of selling city property along with other functions. Jacquelyn Cornish - formerly the executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. - was chosen to oversee the new division. Cornish served on Dixon's transition committee this year and contributed $1,135 to her campaign in 2007.

Within the division, another official and longtime friend of Dixon's was then put in charge of a number of the programs the department uses to sell city property. Despite their friendship, Dixon denied ever lobbying the housing department on behalf of Edward Anthony for a promotion.

"First of all, you need to talk to the commissioner, because he doesn't work for me," Dixon said of Anthony. "I've never done that. ... I don't get involved in the hiring of people - and he's more than qualified - but I don't get into that."

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