Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Baltimore vacants program has yielded 1 home sale

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s nearly 6-month-old Vacants to Value initiative has resulted in one sale of a vacant city home, a three-story shell located in Upton, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said Tuesday.

The program, announced by the mayor in November 2010, has its own marketing push, a website and a Facebook page, and has been billed as an aggressive drive to convert thousands of vacant and blighted dwellings to new ownership with the help of grants of up to $5,000 for certain buyers raised through the sale of city bonds.

At a forum in Lutherville that attracted Realtors and city officials, Graziano and Deputy Housing Commissioner Julie Day said a majority of the 16,000 properties targeted in the program are in “markets that are very weak now,” which lessens the program’s spotlight on their availability.

“Our focus is pushing outcomes in an area where there is a market,” Graziano said. “A lot of investors are buying and renovating” in the program.

“We’re working with eight to 10 investors who are buying up a lot of property.”

Neither Graziano nor Day said they could recall details of those investors, or how many properties were involved following the five-hour forum, held at the headquarters of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

Graziano said the program, a signature initiative of Rawlings-Blake rolled out in her first year in office, was structured to allow quick disposal of liens against properties for non-payment of taxes and other code violations in order to hasten sales.

One Realtor in the audience boasted that she owned several vacant city properties and “hadn’t paid property taxes on them for years,” which drew a sneer from her colleagues.

The “Vacants to Value” program also allows city housing inspectors to levy fines up to $900 “for vacant properties that sit in otherwise good areas,” Graziano said.

“We are now starting to enforce that, and it can be tripled with penalties,” he added.

The program’s website shows a five-page list of properties for sale — and notes that only one has sold, at 1564 McCulloh St. Day said the property sold for $25,000.

Three other dwellings, also in Upton, are listed as “pending,” the website shows.

Some of the Realtors grilled Graziano about the Vacants to Value and another program called the SCOPE Project, which is also aimed breaking down the city’s vacancy crisis. Under SCOPE, Realtors are able to list and sell vacant properties in the city, while the Vacants to Value program hosts the sales through the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

A few Realtors and real estate experts said the vacancy problem is a top priority — along with making homeownership affordable, available and safe.

“Safety is the number one issue, followed by parking and taxes,” said Realtor Theo Harris, of Keller Williams Realty in Canton, about what potential buyers say.

Some also questioned recent purchases of vacant and distressed city properties as cash sales, and the fact that the reported median price of a home in Baltimore this year is $53,000, down from $153,000 in the early 2000s.

During the first quarter of 2011, there were 1,282 house sales in the city — and 589 were foreclosure sales, GBBR figures show.

Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, executive vice president of the GBBR who announced his candidacy for mayor last week, said short sales and foreclosure sales on city property has a devastating impact.

“The average price of a city house sale is 70 percent below a non-distressed sale,” Landers said. “It’s undercutting values. There is no strategic plan, and it is a tidal wave that’s going to erode values. It’s going to slam the tax base big time.”

Landers, who resigned from his post at GBBR effective June 24, said the number of vacant homes and lots in the city totals 47,000. In November, Graziano said the figure was 30,000.

About one-third of those properties are city-owned, the commissioner added.