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Mobtown Beat

Still Pretty Vacant

Two years into the Vacants to Value program, progress is slow

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A Google Maps image (top) of the 1200 BLOCK of North Broadway shows its condition before vacants to values and, below, its current state.


Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stopped by the 1200 block of North Broadway on Nov. 27 to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Vacants to Value, her signature housing initiative, and to expand its already ambitious goals.

“To get Baltimore growing again, we needed to develop a strategy to strengthen our communities by the [sic] reducing bureaucracy that discouraged investment while at the same time creating incentives to increase investment in our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake, according to a press release later that day. “The partners standing with us today have stepped up to join our effort to eliminate blight and create new opportunities for families who want to live and work in Baltimore.”

Launched in 2010 as a six-point plan to eliminate blight, the program set a goal of renovating 1,500 abandoned houses in the first year, using a combination of fines and incentives aimed at recalcitrant developers and buyers. Owners of vacant properties could be fined $900, for example; buyers of renovated, formerly vacant houses in targeted areas could be eligible for up to $15,000 from the city for down payments and closing costs. But by the end of 2011, V2V could claim only a few hundred houses under renovation and a Housing Department spokesperson denied that the goal had ever been 1,500.

On Nov. 27, Rawlings-Blake committed to renovating an additional 1,500 homes between 2013 and 2016 as part of something called the Clinton Global Initiative. An additional 1,500 properties will be demolished as part of the initiative, the mayor said. The press release called it a “significant expansion of the program, including new, ambitious rehabilitation and demolition goals and the addition of new strategic partners to support the City in meeting these goals.”

Ambitious though these goals are, City Paper’s attempts to track the program’s progress were thwarted. After ignoring our requests for data for more than a month, Baltimore Housing Director of Communications Cheron Porter finally referred the paper to the department’s website, saying, “Feel free to search our website and the extensive data that is available to all.”

The V2V website (as of Nov. 25, updated only through Aug. 20) offers mainly disaggregated data, so the true number of completed renovations and sold houses is at present known only to Baltimore Housing. The website claimed a total of 817 rehabs begun or completed (the mayor’s Nov. 27 press release said “more than 450”). The V2V website said 89 units had been demolished; the Mayor’s Nov. 27 press release put that number at 245. According to the website, there were 616 $900 citations issued to recalcitrant landowners—“more than 700” in the press release—but the number of those actually paid was not available.

The V2V celebration at the 1200 block of North Broadway was still going strong an hour after the mayor left. There were a dozen or so people under the tents set up on the median strip. Kim Nunnelly was conducting an open house at 1216 N. Broadway, a three-story rowhouse that TRF Development Partners had just finished renovating and has priced at $213,000. It is one of 21 buildings the nonprofit company owns on this block.

But for V2V, Nunnelly says, “it would make it a lot more difficult for homebuyers to come up with the closing costs. It is truly a very needed, necessary, and a very well-used program.”

Nunnelly, a former realtor who since January has served as TRF’s regional manager, pitches the houses as low- and moderate-income units. The price is less important than the mortgage amount, she says, which can be reduced by up to 80 percent by city and state incentives. The company’s Preston Street houses, for instance, sell for $189,000 but the owners’ mortgages are only $99,900, Nunnelly says.

Two other developers are touring the house, plus a builder, Charles Neal, a mason who says he’s been doing rehabs for 20 years. A 1987 City College grad, Neal says he has three projects in the neighborhood, plus a much-downsized granite and marble company. His great-grandfather was a stone mason, he says, as were his grandfather and an uncle.

Neal’s crew is in the service of Mike Young, rebuilding another three-story rowhouse just around the corner, at 1620 East Biddle. Standing in that house’s rough-framed interior, Young says he bought the place in 2007 with the idea of doing a quick rehab and sale. The real-estate crash delayed those plans.

“We bought a few in this area,” he says, as rain pours through the ceiling and puddles on the pressboard floor from an open window two floors above.

The area around Hopkins looks like an opportunity to Young. “They’re putting in a 7-Eleven,” he says. “Things are happening here now.” He says V2V is “very advantageous for any buyer” because they’ll be able to pick up a potential $15,000 grant. But Young says he also knows V2V’s sting.

“I been to court . . . six times,” he says. “My lawyer, David Cohen, guided us through the process of receivership.”

In other words, the city tried to take this house from Young, one of the 600 or so it filed receivership claims on. “Let’s put it this way,” Young says. “It took a lot of convincing of the wife to let go of some household treasury to let us do this. She had really had it with Baltimore real estate.”

Young estimates he’s gotten fined about $250 each quarter for debris in the backyard (not his) and other violations. The water bill is $600 a year, even though there is no water coming through the meter yet. (Online records show a current balance due of $385.) “Then you call 311 on the vacant house next door because the roof collapsed—and they won’t take it down.”

But Young brightens: “I see a lot happening here now.”

He says he hopes it’ll be only a few months more before he can start showing it to potential buyers.

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