Have we got a (vacant) house for you!

Can bus tours and $5,000 loan offers sell vacant houses and curb Baltimore's blight?

trolley tour vacants picturing

The city is hoping people like Brian Schwab will buy, fix up and move in to vacant houses like this one in West Baltimore, which he photographed on a homebuying tour Saturday.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Looking to transform Baltimore’s 16,000 dilapidated vacant houses from a civic problem into a bargain-hunter’s dream, city housing officials and Live Baltimore pitched their product at a homebuyer’s fair last weekend, offering narrated tours, special workshops, low, low prices and a chance at a $5,000 credit toward a home loan.

“I’m really hoping to see some nice detached houses today,” said Dorothea Jackson, who owns a Brooklyn co-op, but wants to move to Baltimore to be near her daughter and grandchildren and would like to open a business here. “I’m not into row-houses.”

Rowhouses, however, are the majority of what the city has to offer, and “nice” is not quite how most people would describe the ones the city is hoping to unload.

But the approximately 230 people who came to Baltimore Polytechnic High School for Live Baltimore’s “Buying into Baltimore” event were not like “most people” – they talked about their desire for fenced yards, good schools, east-facing bedroom windows, community gardens, access to transit and how confident they were they could find these things in the humbler parts of the city.

“We have no problems about considering these neighborhoods – we live right down the street from them,” said Eric Scouten, 31, a program manager who commutes to Washington by train.

Scouten rents a place on Mount Royal Ave. along with Cassandra Kapsos, 30, an artist and photography and digital arts instructor at a Baltimore County high school. The young couple do not, Kapsos said emphatically, see themselves as county-dwelling suburbanites.

“Our neighbors around MICA think this area where we’re looking is completely unsafe,” Kapsos, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, said with a grin. But Kapsos and Scouten are determined to find a place of their own, within walking distance of the West Baltimore MARC train station – and the occasional boarded-up house on a block is not a stopper for them.

From left, Trudy and Samuel McCullough and Cassandra Kapsos and Eric Scouten board the Vacants to Value bus in west Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

From left, Trudy and Samuel McCullough and Cassandra Kapsos and Eric Scouten board the Vacants to Value bus in west Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“If we could fix it up, get a place cheap, this would make sense for us,” Scouten said. “We can’t really do it otherwise.”

The special new feature of this annual event (attracting this couple and a busload of others) was the $5,000 award for homebuyers who purchase a city-designated house from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Vacants to Value” initiative, which she unveiled in November.

That’s a pretty big discount, especially on vacant shells like the cheapest and most bombed-out-looking specimen participants were going to be officially shown on the Saturday morning “Vacants” bus tour – 1722 Harlem Ave. for $7,000. (They were also going to look at two remodeled vacants, selling for $150,000 and $119,000.)

Would these latter-day urban homesteaders be as peppy and positive after actually going to these ailing neighborhoods and seeing these abandoned buildings?

“You have to put your vision on,” warned Teresa Stephens, director of marketing and community outreach for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, speaking to a classroom full of people preparing to embark on the first-ever Vacants to Value bus tour. Picture the hostas planted, she urged, and the wicker chairs on the porches.

“That’s why we give you those rose-colored glasses.” They actually handed out little “glasses,” like you get for 3-D movies.

Boarded-up Blocks of Baltimore

Vacants-to-Value is just the latest city government attempt to take aim at a problem that has been developing in Baltimore for decades – dilapidation in blocks where residents have been fleeing in staggering numbers. Continuing the post-war trend, the city again lost population in the last decade – 30,000 people, a 4 percent decline.

There are about 30,000 vacant properties in Baltimore – 16,000 are houses and 14,000 are lots that once had houses. Who owns those boarded-up houses? About 4,000 of them belong to the city.

 A view from the sunny front room of rehabbed 1817 Druid Hill Ave. of the boarded-up properties across the street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

A view from the sunny front room of rehabbed 1817 Druid Hill Ave. of the boarded-up properties across the street. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Some of those vacant dwellings are beyond repair and need to be demolished, say city officials, who invited the media to  a “demolition event” yesterday in Govans with Rawllings-Blake and other officials.

Other vacants, though, in relatively good neighborhoods, have been deemed to have some chance of being purchased, renovated and occupied.  Under Vacants to Value, the city is trying to identify such places and get 1,500 of them back on the tax rolls over the next year. Marketing efforts like the event on Saturday are a key part of the strategy, along with a slick new website listing properties, a Facebook page and a cadre of hired staffers like Stephens.  Housing officials say they are also trying to do a better job of coordinating support services for homebuyers, speeding up the process of selling vacant properties and cracking down harder on housing code violators.

Promoting the program was a natural for Live Baltimore, which has been marketing city neighborhoods with these “Buying into Baltimore” events for the past 14 years, according to executive director Anna Custer Singh. (It’s actually two events annually, a West side one and an East side one.

uld-be buyers head out for a bus tour of Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Would-be buyers head out for a bus tour of Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

This year, the East Baltimore tour is being held on Sept. 10.)

Before the buses departed,  City housing officials explained how the  various financial incentives work, including the $5,000 loan offer for tour participants who end up buying a listed Vacants to Value home and a similar $4,000 offer for those who tour and then buy any other West Baltimore home under $417,000.

Among the conditions they have to meet: participate in the tour and get their ticket stamped at each house visited, make the home their primary residence and close on it within 90 days of the tour. The website explains more, including this bit about the $4,000 award being “not free money” but “a forgivable loan” that can go toward a down payment or closing costs:

“As long as you stay in the home you purchase with the funds for five years as the primary owner-occupant you don’t have to repay the award.”

Searching for the Glitter Behind the Rot

The first vacant house the group was shown was 2915 Woodland Ave., a detached house in the Cylburn neighborhood. To reach it, the bus passed small well-kept homes with blooming irises, as well as several that were boarded-up and run down.

“It’s the only vacant house on the entire block,” Stewart assured the group. “It’s got over 1,500 square feet of space that you could make your dream home.”  “Friendly neighbors!” someone observed, as a group of passersby waved to the bus. “Look at that!” Kapsos said,tapping Scouten, pointing to the greenhouse behind nearby Pimlico Elementary/Middle School.

Central Casting, send in the ultimate blighted "fixer-upper": the back of 2915 Woodland Ave. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Upon arrival, participants got out and prowled excitedly around the property, discovering that behind the aluminum-siding-clad front was a big cedar-shingled, badly-run-down, partially burned back, missing its porch and with a large, weedy, shady lot. It seemed to thrill them.

“This is nice!” one man said, “I never would have thought it was so big!”

“Big lot, too,you could put a driveway here,” said Brian Schwab, a federal government employee who lives in Laurel.” I think I would take that tree down.”

“There might be a way to make a front porch,” Schwab said, snapping pictures and explaining that he does graphic design as part of his work and might lay out a renovation plan. The small 20s-era houses reminded him of those he’s seen in parts of the South where some of his relatives live.

“It’s not a bad neighborhood at all,” he said. Turns out the property was part of a 2008, $558,964 19-lot tax take-back. List price today for this individual parcel? $10,000 “as is.” For safety reasons, participants weren’t able to get inside to learn more about that “as is” situation.

A Place of Her Own

Not everyone was swept away by 2915 Woodland. Back on the bus, Monifa Mears, 27, wrinkled her nose and said “It’s not for me.”

“Too much work, too much out in the boondocks,” said the 27-year-old Baltimore County teacher, who is finishing a Masters in school counseling this month.

Still, living with her mother in Owings Mills, Mears is eager to get a place of her own and knows that, with her income and with school loans still to pay, it probably won’t be her dream home, something like the pretty brownstone a friend of hers has in Mount Vernon.

One of Monifa Mears' priorities, she said, on a tour of vacant Baltimore houses: "I don't want to look out my window and see scary people."

One of Monifa Mears' priorities, she said, on a tour of vacant Baltimore houses for sale: "I don't want to look out my window and see scary people."

“It was so gorgeous. Oh, my god!” she said. “It had high ceilings, exposed brick and it was not cheap.” Still, she said, she has high hopes of finding something like it that doesn’t need major renovation and is in “an area that is diverse. That’s very important to me.”

Like others on the bus, Mears was looking for things to like, pointing out a group of people digging and planting in a community garden off Park Heights Avenue. Stretches of boarded houses went unremarked. “I really want to be in the city but I don’t want to look out my window and be depressed,” she said, at one point.

Maybe the renovated homes on the tour would be more to her liking, like the 111-year-old three-bedroom Colonial-green-painted brick rowhouse at 44 S. Stockton Street for $119,000. To get there, they marched steadfastly past an unsmiling group of residents and found themselves in a small street near Hollins Market, which prompted one of them to say “It looks like Italy!” They snagged free bags of chips and bottles of water and checked out the deck, the maple cabinets in the kitchen and the hardwood hardwood floors in the living room.

“This is small, and not much parking,” Mears said. “And I don’t know about those neighbors.” Others on the tour agreed, but were attracted to the tax freeze on the property – “9 years left on a 10-year tax freeze, at $310/year.” “This isn’t so horrifying. It’s fixed up,” Mears said, adding jokingly “a fixer-upper for me would be a paint job!”  Scouten and Kapsos, meanwhile were intrigued by the place, especially because they saw the nearby Hollins Market as a potentially great solution to the problem they find in their own neighborhood and across the city – no place to buy groceries. “I didn’t even know about this market,” Kapsos said, as the bus rolled past it.

The organizers provided "rose-colored glass" for the vacant house tour and Antonio Watson wore his. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The organizers provided "rose-colored glass" for the vacant house tour and Antonio Watson wore his. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Finally, it was time to go back to Poly, where housing officials were explaining incentive programs, like special discounts for city police, firefighters or teachers and a “side lot” program to allow homeowners to buy the rights, for $500, to use vacant lots adjacent to their houses for de facto side yards.

It was time to put a last few questions to people, before going home to recover from this blue-light special on blight. Why have so few Vacants to Value homes been sold – just one, reportedly – after the extensive initiative has been underway for more than half a year?

Stewart, the Housing Department outreach person who lead the tour, said the more meaningful question is, how many house sales have been “awarded.” She said that while “only three or four” have been “sold” so far, 24 have been “awarded” and will be considered “sold” after Board of Estimates approval, which she said is very likely. Inside the school building, seminars on how to buy city-owned vacants continued and some of the questions gave a hint of the challenges buyers are up against.

 At first, no one wanted event to get out of the bus and look at 1722 Harlem Ave. This view is from the back, where there's a weedy, trashed-out pocket park. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The back of 1722 Harlem Ave. where there's a weedy, trashed-out pocket park. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“How do we find a reliable contractor to do this work? Do you recommend people? We don’t know anything about it,” one man said, sounding alarmed.

But Samuel P. McCullough, 45, found discussing these questions with city housing officials at the fair (and taking the Vacant tour with his wife) rewarding, “better than I expected!”

“I had no idea the city educated people for so little,” McCullough said. (They had paid the pre-registration fee of $10 each to participate.) Trudy McCullough was even more enthusiastic. “We believe it’s going to work for us,” she said. “The next time you see us, we’re going to be homeowners.” They live and rent a home in the city and he works in Hanover, she works in Rosedale. Why, they were asked, don’t they move to the county?

“It’s expensive to be in the county,” Samuel said. And they want to be in Baltimore.

“I love the city,” Trudy said “Everything is closer in the city. You can get to shopping and things you like to do. And you’re closer to family.”

Live Baltimore beckons potential buyers to a city-owned vacant house on Harlem Ave. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Live Baltimore beckons potential buyers to a city-owned vacant house on Harlem Ave. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • Sean Tully

    They should be selling these junkers for $1.00 to anyone willing to fix them up and live in them for 10 years.   I think some mayor that many consider pretty good did something similar. 

    • Kish Green

      Philadelphia had a 1.00 house program many years ago and it helped communities.

  • Peter Fillat

    Agreed.  I don’t understand why this has to be so difficult.   Give the houses away to as many people interested in putting up the sweat equity and or getting a loan to fix them up.  4 of 24 have closed means 3,996 to go!  And thats only 15% -20% of the problem!

  • observer

    Fix the dang crime first, then crack down on the code violators as you say instead of giving them repreive after reprive! Code Enforcement is a JOKE! 

    • Sean Tully

      A man/woman after my own heart! 

  • Claudlaw

    While it’s heartening to see the vacants to value idea getting some traction, I can’t help but wonder why the city hasn’t tried to replicate the Otterbien-type homesteading idea, where the neighborhood “pioneers” aren’t so isolated (if people can’t wrap their heads around the $1 lots anymore, how about $1K?)   And maybe with a more strategic eye on the map, perhaps trying to connect decent neighborhoods (eg, the blocks between station north and charles village). 

  • Mark

    Exactly. Too many hoops to jump through. These houses should be part of a massive homesteading program and given away for $1.00 to qualified and motivated buyers. The benefits the city would see by doing this would be enormous.

  • Nate

    The City is so obstinate with their sunk cost fallacy–like they somehow have to get their money’s worth out the houses (I’m paraphrasing comptroller Joan Pratt from a few years ago).

    The City needs to stop selectively marketing the houses and basically GIVE some of the houses away  for $1 if would-be buyers qualify to renovate the houses. Who cares if the buyers lives in them?! If they fix up the house and have someone living in them, then it’s a success. Stop adding all these restrictions. If a house sold for $558 3 years ago it AIN’T worth $10,000 now, dude.

    Yes, there is always land value, but if the property it so bad it must be domolished, that’s a negative value and some of those properties are essentially worth less than nothing. They need to be sold for no more than a buck.

    As I often say (and many others say): Time equals money. The longer the City waits to “get its moneys worth” the more the properties and the neighborhoods will deteriorate and be worth less and cost more to fix up while  more people will leave those neighborhoods.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Nate! I think you misread the 2008 sale price on that house in Cylburn, Nate….(I had a decimal point instead of a comma in the middle, so, my fault! Typo!) According to Zillow It last sold for $558,964 in 2008,” Not $558. I did a triple take, seeing that. Was the bubble that nutty?

    • Anonymous

      Hey Nate, maybe you misread that part about the price of the house in Cylburn (It had a confusing typo, so probl’ly my fault!) That house last sold for $558,964, if I read my Zillow right !!! -Fern

      • Nate

        Clearly something is astray. Was it burned out on the inside? Even 4 years ago, houses in that area wouldn’t fetch that much. Did it come with a liquor license? :)

        • Anonymous

          There were signs of a fire from what I could see from the outside. The tour group was not allowed to enter, ‘for safety reasons’ we were told. FS

          • Flamingo Hall

            Idea:  Get my hero,  President Jimmy Carter, on the case.

        • Anonymous

          YES something was astray: my reporting! This property was part of a 19-lot tax take-back, so the price was for a slew of places. Corrected it in the post and thanked CP’s Ed Ericson for looking into it….fs

    • Sean Tully

      I’d rather they sit and rot than sell them to flippers, slum lords, and the like for $1.00.  The whole reason for selling them for $1.00 to home buyers is that the owners will have a stake in the house, community, and city.  If they don’t stay the required amount of time, they pay back any loans in full and receive a penalty of some kind.  I got a community load that required me to stay in the house eight years.  I am in my eighth year and I do not plan on leaving any time soon.  Now my house cost a little more than $1.00, but the point is the same. 

      • Nate

        Sean, I’m suggesting they sell only to people who clearly have the cash or financing to fix it up and require them to do so within a set, short period of time. More homeowners are ideal, but it’s still a deterent to fixing up these buggers. A lot of people will buy a house to rent out, but not live in. And a lot of would-be renters would rent in an area they would not buy in. A refurbished property on the tax rolls is 9/10ths of the way toward owner occupied houses relative to the houses’ current situation.

  • Sean Tully

    Another idea, if they just can’t bare to give these things away to just anyone, give them away to city employees (especially police, fire, teachers) who will fix them up and live in them.  

  • devils advocate

    Seems like a good idea but some of these areas being offered seem a little shaky. Just thinking out loud but why was $1 house program so successful and not being replicated now? Are the most desireable areas, Butchers Hill, Otterbein, Fells Point etc., already built up.What happened to Sowebo? That was a happening place in late 80’s into 90’s. Seemed to just stop developing and slip into decline. Have to think that crime/drugs have really taken over so many parts of the city that could have been marketable 20 years ago.

  • Staceyd

    Vacant house with windows open 113 garden ridge 21228

  • Julia

    So is there a formal group of creative people who bought some of these vacant houses and tell us about their experiences?  I am about to look into buying a house, 300 down, 300 per month…and the only thing I fear is my safety. West Baltimore looks pretty scary, but I am thinking that if I buy a place near the MARC station, circle my neighborhood on a map and invite others to join me there. Hey, we can create a cool urban homesteading community.

    I actually need to do this, I an not afford the mainstream property market. I imagine there are a lot of horror stories about people who moved into these neighborhoods, however, I am hoping to hear of the roses that also grew from this scheme. Those of you have done this – enlighten us about great areas to buy in and hopefully fortify your efforts.

    • Brent Hutchinson

      I’m from Baltimore and I was going to look into this too. The question I have is the some of these houses -no one could possibly be paying the taxes on some of these broken down houses. So I would imagine that you wouldn’t even need to make an offer. What the squatter’s rights laws in place, it seems that someone could just move in to one of these homes and make it and then call it there own. All of the information is a matter of public record. Research the Baltimore’s squatter’s rights laws and then just move in!

  • Rich Williams

    i want more info on how to get info on purchasing vacant homes in baltimore city

    • Anonymous

      To start, check with “Live Baltimore,” whose ad is on this site.

  • Maldonado george

    Im interested in more information about this ones i life time opportunity 
    please send my what  I need to do
    thank you 

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