[Baltimore Sun] Vacant houses for $1? Baltimore proposal would fix low prices for some city-owned homes

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Under a new proposal from Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development, city-owned vacant homes could be sold for $1 — but only in certain neighborhoods, and if specific conditions are met.

The proposal, scheduled to go before Baltimore’s spending board next week, is intended to simplify sale negotiations for city-owned vacant properties by setting fixed prices.

It applies to vacant homes and lots in the city neighborhoods with the most “stressed” housing markets, featuring lower sales prices, and higher rates of foreclosure and vacancy. For the most part, they lie in East and West Baltimore. The proposal therefore covers the majority of the city’s vacant homes inventory, though the city chooses which of its homes go up for sale.

The $1 price point would be available only for individual buyers and community land trusts. Developers would have to pay $3,000, and so would large nonprofits with 51 or more employees. Nonprofits with fewer employees could pay $1,000.

The policy also would cover vacant lots, which would range in price from a dollar to $1,000, based on a similar structure.

“This was a way, overall, not just to help streamline part of the process, by just making it easier for the public and the staff to know: This is the price point,” Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said. “But also, it was helping us to achieve the goals of redevelopment, while also another way to lower acquisition costs.”

The proposal evokes the city’s “dollar house” program of the 1970s, which offered dollar homes to residents willing to fix them up and live in them. That program included low-interest renovation loans for buyers, but this proposal does not — it merely sets fixed prices, Kennedy said.

However, the city plans to help buyers access loan opportunities, she said. The city already has threshold requirements in place for buyers, requiring them to show they have the financing in place, among other qualifications.

New owners would be required to keep the property residential, though mixed-use developments would be acceptable so long as they also include residences. The vacant lots could be used for green space.

Individual buyers would be required to complete renovations quickly, file to use the vacant home as a primary residence within a year, and live there for five years. If the home is sold before then, they owe the city a pro-rated portion of $3,000.

In recent years, efforts to revive the dollar-home program have fallen short. An effort by City Council President Nick Mosby, focused on bringing the program to longtime city renters, and providing rehabilitation loans using federal coronavirus relief money, faltered in committee in 2022.

In an interview Friday, Mosby, who sits on the Board of Estimates, which will vote on the proposal next week, said he plans to vote against it. He noted that it doesn’t prioritize city buyers, who may have been disadvantaged by racist housing policies of the past; it doesn’t include any loan structure; and it doesn’t include any assurances that the homes would be rented out or sold at affordable rates after they are rebuilt.

“What are we losing by doing that? By not having the guardrails in place, by not prioritizing the folks that we need to?” Mosby said. “And that is the complete difference between [this and] the dollar house program that the administration and housing fought aggressively to defeat.”

A city council oversight hearing focused on the housing department’s measure is scheduled for Tuesday.

Kennedy said that the new fixed-price proposal is just one piece of the city’s larger plan for dealing with its large inventory of vacant homes and lots. For instance, the city also is looking to increase its down payment and closing cost assistance, Kennedy said. And the city is hoping to encourage city residents to participate in the program through an outreach effort after the Board of Estimates gives its seal of approval.

City officials hope the change will help reduce the number of vacant buildings, a scourge on the city and a focus for Mayor Brandon Scott, following the deaths in recent years of several city firefighters battling blazes in crumbling vacant homes.

In December, Scott unveiled his plan to address the decades-old problem with new financing from a new tax increment financing zone, and yet-to-be-secured state funds.

According to a city dashboard, there are 13,558 vacant properties, and 891 are city-owned. Per the dashboard, the quantity has been declining since 2018, when the number of vacant properties was close to 17,000.

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