« Get your property-assessment appeal in by Tuesday | Main | In defense of the homestead credit »

January 3, 2012

Identifying the big vacant-property owners

We know there are thousands of vacant homes in Baltimore, 16,000 by some definitions and more by others. But who owns them -- besides the city -- is much less well-known.

Baltimore software developer Mike Subelsky decided to gather together public data to shed more light on the subject, and perhaps help the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog find candidates to "feature." The list he compiled -- by scraping state and city websites for vacancy and ownership data -- includes the city (of course) as well as limited liability companies, landlords and nonprofits.

The datasets have limitations -- multiple LLCs obscuring both who owns and whether they own multiple homes, for instance -- but it's an interesting effort. Subelsky says it took a few weeks, mostly to clean up the results of the scraping.

He did a quick Q&A with me to explain the why and the what-next:

Q. What prompted you to invest the time?

A. It was one of several things proposed for my "free software project." I really care about the city and want to make it a nicer place for everyone to live and work, and I've always been involved in some type of public service, so I naturally gravitated to the idea of using my software skills for a public good.

I'm also in search of hard, interesting problems to solve with software that I could turn into a business. The only way I'm going to get good ideas is to start tackling problems. Even though this project doesn't have immediately obvious commercial applications, I learned a lot of interesting things while working on it, and it's created some new entrepreneurial opportunities.

Q. What other ways do you think residents can use city data to shine light on problems or help point to solutions?

A. I'm contemplating two ideas right now:

(1) If we can get access to lists of stolen property from the police, I bet someone could build a tool to identify the thieves trying to sell it on Craigslist or eBay. If I know a gold Rolex watch was stolen on Monday, and I see a similar watch posted to Craigslist on Tuesday, it's probably the same watch. I bet the police would love to get an email every day with leads like that.

(2) The slumlord watch blog says the city's vacant building database is not accurate. It's probably really difficult to keep the list up-to-date anyway, and the city may have a strict legal definition of "vacant" that lags behind conditions on the ground. I think we could use a few different crowdsourcing technologies to create a really up-to-date list, similar to what Baltimore Green Space did last year using volunteers with smartphones to identify all of the community gardens in Baltimore (beyond the officially documented spaces).

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Vacancies


Nice work Mike. Imagine if this data could be combined with a 3D "Sketch-Up" of the City blocks. That way you can read the data and "see" the overview of the problem. Perhaps starting with a major artery like Broadway or North Avenues? If you can show people the aerial perspective, they may consider investing in the solution when they see a mock-up of property in context with the neighborhood.

It is really hard just for software to get information on properties. At some point, there should be manual review otherwise the data will not be as useful as we want it to be. But who knows, technology is advancing so fast that we dont know what software in the future will be capable of doing.

Thanks for writing about this! Rachel and Omni, this project just scratches the surface. There's a lot more that could be done with automated techniques. Omni I think on-the-ground research is definitely essential. Here I was trying to identify the "low-hanging fruit". I do think there are ways to make that on-the-ground research more efficient via technology, like how Baltimore Green Space used volunteers with smartphones to canvas green spaces throughout the city.

Figure out who the owners are, put their names,addresses and pictures up next to photos of their abandoned decaying properties. Sort of like the mug shots of the real estate world.

As you can see... Baltimore City is one of the largest offenders. Why not write some of those properties off to Habitat or do another $1 sell off?

I agree that it should be possible to crowd-source the identification of vacant buildings.

-- Once upon a time, my sister was working in low-income housing, and did a project on abandoned housing in Boston. The Boston mayor's office had a list of abandoned buildings that was maybe a year old, and already very, very out of date. (This was before the internet, electronic records, etc.) So she and I spent a fair amount of time driving around checking to see which houses on that list were still abandoned, and also (for about ten selected precincts) cataloging all the visibly abandoned houses, both on and off the list.

After that, every year or so for maybe a dozen years, we went and rechecked all the buildings to see which had turned over. It was fascinating: this was during a big Boston housing boom, but while many areas of the city were turning over their abandoned buildings very quickly, some neighborhoods were just not moving at all.

It's not that much work, and it's pretty cool. And listing abandoned property is really useful, not only for directing people who are looking for something to rehab to the right properties, but because knowing things like how quickly abandoned property turns over is really useful for designing policy solutions. (In, say, Roland Park or Fells Point, I'd imagine that properties are rehabbed fairly quickly in any case; where that's true, any problems that need addressing are likely to be very different from those that affect neighborhoods in which properties lie abandoned for decades.)

@Omni is correct the data that the city and state keep needs to be cleaned up. Even for City owned properties there are over 15 variations effectively The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore.

There is also a clever(?) LLC called: "MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL OF II LLC" which owns what appears to be a 1200 square foot empty lot at 2219 Division St in Druid Heights.

@mike. I work for a small property management company and we have utilized blogs like Baltimore Slumlord Watch to contact the owners of these vacant properties with the hope of helping them rehab and making the property rentable. I am interested in learning about who in the city council is the correct person to speak with regarding housing.

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