Q&A: Dollar Homes
Two Q&As for the price of one this week!
Wonk reader Matt Gonter noticed a new blog called Baltimore Housing Overstock that's trying to revive the idea of "dollar homes." (The city raffled off 104 homes for $1 in 1975, as this Live Baltimore bio of Otterbein notes. You can read about the larger, longer-running homesteading project here.)
I thought you all might be interested, so I chatted by email with Steve Goodman, the blog owner and a Better Waverly resident. He kicked off the site last week with this description of his proposal and a request that people go to Mayor Sheila Dixon's May 6 "neighborhood conversation" about vacant and abandoned properties.
Q. Why did you start the site? Do you plan to keep it up as a blog, or do you see it as more of a way to get your proposal out there?
I started the site as a way to spread the word that the mayor is interested in addressing the blight issue, and to rally public support for action. I think we're at a unique moment in time when there is a lot of flux in our country, and a coherent vision of the future can be quite powerful. I want to publicize that there are many people in Baltimore who love the city, but know that it needs to change and are hopeful for what lies ahead. I don't have any long term plans for it; I'm taking it day by day at this point.
Q. Why are you concerned about the city's abandoned homes?
Funny question! It's like asking "why are you concerned about the tumor?" I'm concerned about the city's abandoned homes because of the lead and asbestos that seep into the water supply from a house with no roof, the psychological effect of living in a city that looks like no one cares, the police blue lights that I see in Greenmount West but not Roland Park, the young girls who get raped in vacant houses in broad daylight, etc.
Blighted neighborhoods correlate highly with high crime rates, poor public education, poor transit solutions and poor public health. There has been a lot of ink used to cover crime, education, the Red Line and JHU studies. We need to address blight the same way we address the other issues. There are an estimated 17,000 abandoned rowhouses in Baltimore.
Q. Why do you think a "dollar home" plan -- or, rather, auctions of city-owned properties starting at $1 -- is a solution?
It's a great first step towards giving individuals the tools to make a difference in their neighborhood. The majority of city-owned properties are currently valueless on the open market; in fact they are worth less than $0 because they lower the value of the surrounding properties. If we can get these properties into the hands of individuals who want to invest in the neighborhood, we do a lot more good letting an individual put $10,000 into renovating the property rather than putting $10,000 into buying a valueless property. The city needs to think about the long-term tax consequences of entire blocks going up in value, and get these properties into the hands of residents.
Secondly, it's a program that has had success before here in Baltimore. ... Why not try again? The important thing to realize is that if this plan is a complete failure, and every single dollar house ends up in the hands of a slumlord who doesn't maintain it, we're in exactly the same place we are now. There is no way to lose with this plan: either we improve the city a lot, or nothing changes.
Q. Do you have a background in real estate? (I noticed the SquareFeet site -- is that yours?)
I do not have a background in real estate, other than being a homeowner. SquareFeet is my day job; it's a venture based on helping renters find neighborhoods that they would like to live in, and helping them compare apartments more easily. We're based in Baltimore, and will be launching our service this summer.