« Hidden gems: Loch Raven Village & Knettishall | Main | Hidden gem: Manchester »

November 23, 2009

Now hear this: a property-tax proposal

Matt Gonter, a Baltimore resident and property-tax activist, is scheduled to hit the airwaves Tuesday at noon during WYPR's Midday show to chat about a proposal he made on the Wonk blog: hike the tax rate charged to owners of vacant property.

Gonter, long aggravated that slumlords pay much less in taxes than people who maintain their properties, commented: "Follow Washington DC's lead and raise the property tax rate for all vacant properties by 800% or more. With over 30,000 vacant properties throughout the city, this would seem to be a no-brainer." (D.C. sets a rate of $10 per $100 in assessed value for vacant properties, compared with 85 cents per $100 for the rest of the residential landscape.)

Gonter started a Facebook page to promote the idea. He's bemused by how quickly it caught people's attention.

"I can't believe that only a week ago I came up with an idea to start a Facebook group dedicated to taxing slumlords extra, and now I'm going to be on the radio to discuss my proposal," he wrote me.

Gonter's suggestion on the blog was part of a larger proposal to lower tax rates overall. Have your own tax-rate idea? Share!

UPDATE: Josh Dowlut, who had a counter-proposal in this space, has been added to the show's roundtable. He disagrees with Gonter that raising the rate on vacant properties will make a positive difference, and he plans to suggest cost-cutting ideas to get the overall property-tax rate down. "A better alternative would be to get big businesses to pay their fair share and end practices such as the 15 year zero tax gift on Legg Mason’s new 200 million dollar waterfront office tower," he wrote in an email to me.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 9:25 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Property taxes


I wouldn't increase it as high as DC, but I think this idea may actually have a benefit. They'll want to make sure they don't ensnare legitimate owners of vacant properties, such as home builders. However, that invites a potential loophole which could be abused. Hopefully they simultaneously lower residential property tax rates if they do increase taxes on vacant properties. That little caveat needs to be included or this will just result in a money grab.

Don't ignore the unintended consequences of this. Hiking the tax rate on vacant properties could be an invitation for property owners to act more like slumlords just for the sake of filling the property by turning a blind eye to quality of the property, ignoring criminal activity, even inviting in bad tenants just to evade the tax. This isn't the no-brainer it seems like, and although it would ultimately result in fewer vacant properties, it may result in more slumlords and less landlord oversight.

I like this idea.

I would say the increased rates shouldn't kick in unless a property has been vacant for a year with no active construction permits have been pulled on the property.

I would also phase in the the initial increase to give owners time to find tenants or sell property they no longer want.

Too bad Mr. Gonter decided to limit the promotion of his idea to Facebook effectively excluding anyone who isn't a member.

Paul, if you have a better idea on how to promote my idea, I'd love to hear it. You criticize me for "limiting" my idea to Facebook, yet you offer no suggestions of your own. I'm also promoting this idea on Jamie's blog and WYPR's Midday, so I'm not just limiting my communications to Facebook.

I think both Matt and Josh's ideas are good and should both be pursued. Wonder how the DC tax has worked, i.e. sales vs. rentals, and how implemented... e.g. normally the city does not know when tenants are in or out of a given property unless there are vacancy complaints by neighbors. Could create a reporting and monitoring nightmare for conscientious, legitimate landlords and the city alike.

Also, if the point of the vacancy tax is to serve as a disencentive to leave a property vacant, i.e. to avoid having the tax imposed, then it likely shouldn't be counted on to raise revenues. But if it, and other good ideas, can help give the city a politically acceptable opening to lower the overall rate (the real problem) then great.

I live in a neighborhood that was at one time 25% vacant homes and now is less and 3%, and while the majority of the former vacant houses are now rentals, and a good portion low income at that, I have to admit the neighborhood is exponentially better!

A LOT of the crime that was in my neighborhood was done by people that did not live in the neighborhood and would come in and squat on vacant properties and sell drugs, etc. When people moved into those houses, the criminals moved on, because they don't want to take the risk of someone who cares calling the police on them. I seriously believe the reason for most Baltimore crime taking place in the areas that it does occur is because vacant houses are an opportunity to do things you don't want people to see in an open air fashion.

Anything to get rid of the vacant houses is a great idea, decreasing my tax rate is just a bonus! Thanks for the great idea, keep up the good work.

@Matt: I'm not saying don't use facebook but you shouldn't keep any information behind their walled garden and hidden from anyone who's not a member

@lisa: I had the same thought but what the city might be able to do is (maybe) use the MVA or Comptroller Income Tax info to cross reference people's addresses to properties. Although I think you already need to register yourself as a landlord so it would be trivial to enable an extra database field for that DB and require landlords to report when a new tenant tacks up residence and departs.

@Dan's point about unintended consequences is something that should be kept in mind.

The property tax increase for vacant property owners wouldn't be imposed on legit landlords who are in between tenants -- I think the most fair solution would be to impose the tax on problem slumlords who own properties that have been vacant for a period of time (that period to be determined by the Dept. of Taxation).

It's more of a slumlord tax (and therefore punitive) and not a general landlord tax.

This is an intriguing idea, and I believe the City of Baltimore Comprehensive Master Plan proposes a similar initiative.

Thanks for weighing in, everyone. (And it's always nice to see another Jamie out there.)

That is just wrong.

For instance what do you do about a neighbor who recently moved? Now does that mean his taxes will be increased because the house is "vacant"? Will he be paying more for a property that she wants to sell? Talk about a double whammy.

Then there is the term, "blighted". Who is to say what is blighted and what is not? This is a subject that we covered in Fine Arts, what is the difference between good art and bad, the difference between porn and nude.

It is just wrong.

If a house is in disrepair and violates building code then fine the owner. But not an anti-luxury tax (ugly tax). I'll be making t-shirts up about this one.

I don't do facebook hence my comments are here.


This proposal targets houses that are both vacant and uninhabitable. For example, if your job required you to move to California, but you were unable to sell or rent your house in Baltimore, you would not be penalized at the higher rate.

In response to your question, "Who is to say what is blighted and what is not?", the city's housing code enforcement office maintains a database of these houses that is accessible online. These property owners could easily avoid paying this higher tax if they abate all of their housing code violations.

hm.. interesting thoughts ))

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Name-calling aimed at other commenters is not welcome here. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
Baltimore Sun articles by Jamie

Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Sun Real Estate section
Archive: Dream Home
Dream Home takes readers into the houses of area residents who have found their ideal home.
Sign up for FREE business alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for Business text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Sign up for the At Home newsletter
The home and garden newsletter includes design tips and trends, gardening coverage, ideas for DIY projects and more.
See a sample | Sign up

Charm City Current
Stay connected