October 28, 2011

Greenmount West organizes neighborhood vacants tour


Photo of Greenmount West homes courtesy of the New Greenmount West Community Association


Boosters in Baltimore's Greenmount West organized a tour last weekend that included homes that are far from neighborhood showpieces but  -- they hope -- will get there in the foreseeable future.

The New Greenmount West Community Association organized the "Vacants to Value" event to drum up interest in the idea of buying a property in disrepair and breathing new life into it. The tour drew about 80 people, said Marian Weaver, a board member with the association.

Group leaders coordinated with several partners, including the city -- which launched the Vacants to Value program last fall to try to get more of Baltimore's thousands of abandoned homes back into productive use.

"When the Vacants to Value Program first went live, we recognized that this would be a great opportunity to leverage the city's willingness to sell vacants that they'd otherwise refused to for the past 30 years, and hope that we could funnel interest into turning these houses into the glorious homeowner occupied dwellings that they once were, rather than more inefficient and poorly managed apartments," Weaver said in an email.

Continue reading "Greenmount West organizes neighborhood vacants tour" »

March 25, 2011

Upcoming housing, neighborhood events

Spring is when some people's fancy turns to homebuying, so it's not surprising that a pair of buyer 101 events are coming up soon.

Live Baltimore has a Smart Homebuying Night scheduled for April 6 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, 5700 Park Heights Ave. (That's not the same as the twice-yearly Buying Into Baltimore, next scheduled for May 14.) An exhibitor fair with real estate agents, lenders and others will run from 5 to 6:30 p.m., with a pre-purchase counseling class from 6 to 9 p.m. for the first 100 registrants. The class is part of what you need to get a counseling certificate, which makes you eligible for some homebuyer incentives.

April 9 -- the following Saturday -- is the Howard County Housing Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which will have industry folks (including homebuilders and remodelers), a bus tour of new developments and a lottery to buy a renovated townhome at what organizers describe as a "substantially reduced" price. (Deadline to register for the lottery is April 6.) The event will be held at Long Reach High School, 6101 Old Dobbin Lane in Columbia.

Residents looking for ways to improve their neighborhood have an event to check out, too: The Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s Fourth Annual Neighborhood Institute, which this year is focusing on "Building Blocks for Better Neighborhoods." That's scheduled for April 2 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Govans Presbyterian Church, 5852 York Road in Baltimore. Workshop topics will include marketing your neighborhood, training "block captains," starting a community garden and dealing with problem properties.

Know of other upcoming housing or neighborhood events? Please leave a comment with a link.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: First-time home buyers, Neighborhood improvement

May 23, 2010

Neighbors put up savings to snag key Patterson Park building



Have you ever seen a problem in your neighborhood and said, "Someone ought to do something"?

In Patterson Park, residents organized to do it themselves.

Here's the story about how four individuals and two couples pooled their money to buy a key commercial building in the Baltimore neighborhood, sitting vacant now but once a community gathering spot. They're on the hook for about $400,000, including closing costs and some other incidentals.

It's the former headquarters of the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., which reversed blight by rehabbing hundreds of homes but couldn't survive the housing bust. The restaurant Three..., which rented the ground floor, is also gone.

The CDC's demise isn't good neighborhood news. It puts many more homes on the market at an already tough time for sellers. It requires a change of ownership for the CDC's rental properties, which makes residents anxious. It removes a paid staff whose mission was neighborhood improvement.

But residents decided they weren't going to simply let events unfold as they may. Neighbors' decision to buy the CDC headquarters -- to keep the ownership hyper-local and have control over the building's use -- is the latest example. (Getting a contract on the building took several tries. Here's a piece about their first attempt.)

This isn't the only time that Baltimore residents have put up significant money in the name of neighborhood improvement or preservation. So tell me, good folks: What have you seen in your neighborhood (or other neighborhoods) that impresses you?

March 23, 2010

A to-do list for the mayor

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's transition committee of 150 (yes, 150) volunteers has several pointed things to say on real-estate-related matters.

In its newly released report, it criticized Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, urged action on the 30,000 vacant properties in the city and suggested that the time might have come to revoke nonprofits' property-tax exemption.

"The reality is that City government cannot continue to function as it has in the past," the committee wrote in its report.

The nonprofit tax suggestion is for "all or some" nonprofits to "be assessed at a reduced rate, to offset the cost of services provided them." The city has looked to nonprofits before in tight times. (Here's a 1996 story about "payments in lieu of taxes," in case you'd like to take a trip through memory lane.)

Other tax suggestions to consider, committee members said: a nonresident earnings tax -- often known as a "commuter tax."

The housing and community development department, which goes by Baltimore Housing nowadays, came in for sharp words. Committee members wrote that the agency "is often the last actor to commit public subsidies to a development project, resulting in significant delays."

"The department’s strategic plan must emphasize community development and neighborhoods, as the agency appears to lack a clear and coherent vision for revitalizing Baltimore's neighborhoods," the report says. "Almost symbolic of the agency's lack of vision is that it has dropped 'community development' from its name."

The committee also wants to see the 30,000 vacant properties in the city managed better -- and a close scrutiny of everything the city owns, vacant or not. Sell, in other words.

"Properties that are not needed for public use ... should be offered to the public in an open and transparent fashion," the report says.

Here's Julie Scharper's story about the report.

So: Thoughts?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Neighborhood improvement, Property taxes

March 1, 2010

Neighborhood-improvement brainstorming

If you were king for a day (or mayor), what would you change in your neighborhood to improve things?

Amid the outpouring of Canton love and hate in the last week, some readers offered up their suggestions. Particularly about parking.

"Many of the wide streets in Canton could have their parallel parking converted into angled parking, which would add several spaces to each block," wrote JB. "Some streets could even be changed to one way and then have angled parking on one or both sides. The city could add hundreds of parking spots to Canton by doing this."

Sherry, a Canton resident who often spends 15 minutes just looking for parking when she gets home from work, thinks head-in parking on wide streets would help, as would a garage. "So would making it easier for homeowners to turn back yards into parking spaces," she commented. "Or painting parking space lines on curb/street to encourage people to park less than 5 feet from the car in front or behind them."

I'm interested to hear what you think is the top fixable problem in your neighborhood, and how you'd fix it. (Extra points if the fix doesn't cost millions of dollars.)

Headroom, another commenter on the Canton post, had a suggestion about how to get suggestions implemented: "I would encourage old and new residents to get involved and start talking to one another, advocating for mutually helpful things, like street/parking rules and better transit. ... Get involved with your elected officials by emailing, writing or attending meetings. They really do listen."

Headroom added, "Most people don't do these things because it takes time. It's easier to stew and shout."

So true.

June 15, 2009

Tips for dealing with a mostly abandoned home

It used to be a problem that plagued few neighborhoods outside older urban communities, but now abandoned and all-but-abandoned homes can be found everywhere. If you live near one, you know that an unmowed lawn can be the least of the troubles. So what do you do? suggests five rules: Research local laws to see what constitutes a violation. Call your local government if any violations exist. Contact the homeowner directly to see if he, she or it (if a bank) will take care of the problems or at least give neighbors permission to do so. Don't do anything to the property if you don't have permission (that's trespassing). And ask the real estate agent for help if the home is listed.

Rule No. 4 -- no trespassing -- might seem silly to a neighbor who can't see why anyone would mind if he cuts the lawn for free. And certainly people have been doing just that. But points out that "if you mow the lawn and mistakenly cut a cable, you could be liable." Something to think about, in any case.

Some folks are following the universal rule about squeaky wheels and grease.

At LenderOffender, neighbors post complaints and photos about bank-owned properties in the hopes of shaming lenders into doing something. (I could find only one from Maryland, involving a house in the Eastern Shore community of Greensboro. A neighbor, noting that the former owners keep coming back to dump garbage, says: "The worst thing about this is when I look out of any window in the back of my house all I see is this trashed house that was a very nice house at one point and I can't do anything about it.")

There's SeeClickFix, a forum for people to note neighborhoods problems of all sorts, from trash dumping (attention Greensboro resident) to potholes.

And, of course, there's Baltimore Slumlord Watch, a local blog about vacant properties and their owners. It names names and encourages calls to the City Council.

Do you have one or more problematic vacant homes near you? Have you found some solutions?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:33 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Neighborhood improvement

March 28, 2009

Conversation starter: Baltimore revitalization

Sometimes Wonk readers will email me directly and say, "Hey, I'd like to see a discussion about such-and-such, because I think it's interesting/important/controversial, and here's what I think about it." My go-to response is, "All right -- I'll let you start."

Here's the conversation starter offered by Mike B.:


I've been contemplating moving from the distant burbs of DC to Baltimore for some time, but keep running smack dab into the wall of facts -- my income tax rate would go up by more than 4%, my real estate tax would be close to double what I would pay here, and the risk of crime goes up. It makes me think ... what exactly would it take to renovate a city? To bring it back to life where everyone wants to live there and no one feels like moving there could be a big financial mistake. I'd like to hear some suggestions from bloggers.

I think phasing out the ground rental issue definitely helps. As does having sports teams and mass transit. But fundamentally there are more expenses and not enough sources of revenue. So what to do? What do readers suggest?

I know you have your own opinions. Discuss away.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:43 PM | | Comments (31)
Categories: Neighborhood improvement
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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.
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