Give the public a large role in sale of vacant properties

June 16, 2008|By J. Howard Henderson

As affordable-housing advocates await Baltimore's appointment and first meeting of the Land Bank Task Force this month, we have concerns about the creation of the proposed Land Bank Authority as authorized by recent state legislation.

While we welcome the city's efforts to address vacancies, its land bank plan, released in October 2007, called for several steps to take place before the creation of an authority would even be considered. An authority would bypass traditional checks and balances to which other city agencies and programs are accountable. We need to create a land bank that opens opportunities for affordable housing and genuinely involves the communities that will be served.

Vacant properties that the city has acquired now belong to the public. The only way for the public to be invested in neighborhood revitalization is if the process for dealing with vacant properties includes strong public accountability and transparency. These are characteristics for which authorities are not typically well-suited.

The Baltimore City Inclusive Housing Coalition has been working since 2006 on housing issues critical to the residents of Baltimore. Its members include the Greater Baltimore Urban League; 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 67; NAACP-Baltimore; ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) of Maryland; Beyond the Boundaries of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland; BRIDGE (Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality); and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

Baltimore can streamline the acquisition and disposition of land through an innovative approach that places communities at the center of decision-making. This can be accomplished in several ways, beginning with creating a clearly defined public and community notification process of the disposition of properties, similar to notifications in the case of zoning changes. This approach should be subject to both the Public Information Act and the open meetings law.

Additional support and procedural priority should be given to developer plans that create more mixed-income communities and have broad community support. Assembled vacant properties should be subject to the affordability requirements of the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, with adjustments for income tiering based on development size. And excess costs from sales should fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

In addition, the governing board should have community expertise and representation of the four geographic areas of the city, as well as representation of low-income workers who stand to benefit from this effort.

These are important criteria to ensure that plans for redeveloping vacant properties will create affordable and inclusive communities that truly involve and benefit Baltimore's working families.

J. Howard Henderson is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League.

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