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Melody Simmons’ real estate notebook, 6/24/11

Have you noticed “CODE X-RAY” on Baltimore’s streets?

No, it’s not an alien invasion or early signs of the zombie apocalypse.

It’s a new program by the Baltimore City Fire Department to warn firefighters that certain dwellings are vacant and unstable.

Chief Kevin Cartwright, director of communication for the department, said these structures bear a large red square marked by a reflective silver X. You can’t miss them when driving through some city neighborhoods pockmarked by blight and block after block of vacant rowhouses.

The squares are installed by local firehouses and serve as a warning to firefighters.

“It will help so they don’t run into a building looking for a person – and it also lets them know the integrity of the structure is compromised” by blight, Cartwright said.

If they went into some of these buildings that were engulfed in flames, he added, “we could have a serious incident on our hands” because many don’t have stable flooring or have been stripped bare by vandals.

Cartwright said he did not know how many CODE X-RAY squares have been installed on the city’s vacant dwellings. The U.S. Census Bureau lists the city as having 47,000 vacancies. The city Department of Housing and Community Development say there are only 16,000 – and 4,500 of those are owned by the city.
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News this week that Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service have affirmed the Baltimore’s AA- bond rating was celebrated at City Hall.

Officials in the mayor’s office and the Department of Finance said the rating agencies cited the city’s strong financial discipline and what they noted as a “strengthening of fiscal policies.”

“Being fiscally responsible enables our City to reduce crime and violence, improve public education, and help create jobs for the future.” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Standard & Poor’s assigned its AA- long-term rating and stable outlooks to the City of Baltimore’s general obligation bonds. The rating house was optimistic about economic development projects here, saying a “trend of economic expansion” now afoot – at least on the drawing board while the recession continues to play out and hinder recovery and development efforts.

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This week at City Hall, the Housing and Community Development subcommittee of the City Council held a hearing on the Vacants-to-Value Program.

The program, a signature of the Rawlings-Blake’s administration, allows for the use of tax credits and down-payment assistance to help individual investors and developers purchase some of the thousands of vacant and blighted homes in the city.

Code enforcement is also used. Deputy Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, who oversees code enforcement, told the council there have been 500 housing code violations issued since the group voted last year to approve enabling legislation for the V-2-V program. Those code violation notices carry an initial penalty of $900 each.

How much has been collected so far on those violation notices, Braverman was asked by Councilman James Kraft?

That’s where things got mushy.

Braverman said land owners have been slow to pay those fines, and that he didn’t have a figure. He explained that many are expected to let the fines ride until next spring’s city tax sale.

Question is: If the property owners fail to pay the fines then – will they forfeit the property to the city via default? If so, the city will “inherit” hundreds more derelict and vacant properties to add to its list.

Sounds like a Catch-22 in the making.

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Bozzuto Homes is expected to be the lead developer of market-rate residential units at the new 100-plus acre Uplands redevelopment on the Westside, city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said during the hearing at City Hall.

The Greenbelt-based firm, which recently developed The Fitzgerald apartment complex near the University of Baltimore, is expected to break ground on the Uplands dwellings to be listed for sale in the fall, Graziano said.

In addition, just over 100 new rental units at the massive site located near Edmondson Village off of Route 40 west are expected to break ground in early July.

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Get ready to wish Mercy Ridge a Happy 10th birthday on July 11.

The Timonium retirement community located on Pot Spring Road stretches over 32 acres and is jointly owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and Mercy Health Services.

The July 11 celebration will include presentation of a LEED Silver certification – the first such designation for a retirement community in the U.S. to be given by the U.S. Green Building Council.