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.

Continue reading "Identifying the big vacant-property owners" »

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

December 9, 2011

Cost to demolish Baltimore's vacants: $180 million

Here's a figure to chew on: $180 million -- the city's estimate for how much it would cost to tear down all the abandoned homes in Baltimore.

That comes from a new Government Accountability Office report on vacancy, which looks at the effects in select cities nationwide. (Hat tip to colleague John Fritze for noticing.)

"Officials in Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago, in particular, stated that the resources required to demolish the large number of long-term vacant properties in those cities exceeds local budgets," the GAO wrote, adding: "Baltimore officials estimated that the city would need approximately $180 million to demolish the inventory of unsafe, unattended properties in the city."

About 16,000 properties in the city have been slapped with vacant building notices, indicating that they are not only empty but also unsafe or uninhabitable. About 22 percent are city-owned, according to Baltimore's housing agency.

Continue reading "Cost to demolish Baltimore's vacants: $180 million" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Vacancies

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" »

October 21, 2011

City asks state to strip homestead credits from 2,157 homes

Heads up, city residents: If you're receiving a property-tax credit you're not entitled to, your days of artificially lower tax bills could be numbered.

Baltimore's Finance Department is asking state assessors to strip homestead credits from 2,157 properties, saying the owners don't live there even though they're collecting a tax break meant for owner-occupiers. The city intends to bill for the $1.3 million in additional taxes for the current year, plus back taxes for up to seven years.

The homestead program has for years been plagued by the problem of people receiving credits on homes they don't live in, or homes they spend some time in but don't occupy as their primary residence. Sometimes property owners collect homesteads they're ineligible for knowingly, sometimes not.

Buyers in the last few years have had to specifically apply for the credit, but longer-term owners have until the end of next year to follow suit. Until the 2007 application law, the state granted homestead eligibility based on whether the land records indicated that the property would be the purchaser's principal residence.

Here's an August story about vacant homes receiving homestead credits, follow-up No. 1 and follow-up No. 2.

If you're confused about whether you're getting the homestead credit on your property, you can look at your tax bill. Baltimore bills are available online here.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Homestead Property Tax Credit, Vacancies

October 7, 2011

35% increase in vacant housing in Md. in last decade

A big jump in the number of empty homes for sale and rent helped push up the number of vacant housing in Maryland over the last decade by 35 percent, new Census figures show.

More than 222,000 homes were vacant during the count in April 2010, an increase of nearly 58,000 properties.

The nationwide increase in vacancy was even bigger than Maryland's -- 44 percent. Nevada's number of unoccupied units more than doubled, which underscores just how hard that state has been pummeled by the housing bust.

In addition to an increase in vacant homes for sale and for rent, Maryland saw growth in vacant vacation homes and a category that includes foreclosures not yet on the market. Here's the breakdown:

Continue reading "35% increase in vacant housing in Md. in last decade" »

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

June 30, 2011

Baltimore offers $10,000 incentive to buyers of formerly vacant rehabs

The $8,000 federal homebuyer tax credit pushed up sales in 2009 and part of 2010. Now Baltimore's housing department is hoping $10,000 toward closing costs and downpayment will drum up as much interest in vacant homes, the city's perennial problem.

The agency plans to officially announce the incentive today -- a total of $500,000 available for the first 50 buyers of Vacants to Value properties. Homeowners can qualify either by finding a recently rehabbed home that the city considers a Vacants to Value property or by purchasing a still-vacant home with a rehab loan such as a 203(k).

Ken Strong, assistant commissioner for green, healthy and sustainable homes at Baltimore Housing, said the city is putting together a list of eligible homes. The program will launch July 1, he said.

The money comes from bond funds intended for homeownership incentives.

"We've had such a slow year -- the housing market has been so depressed -- that some of the money we've set aside for homeownership incentives in the past year have been unspent," Strong said. "Now we want to target them to get real stimulus into Vacants to Value."

The city's Office of Homeownership, 410-396-3124, will handle questions about the program. The money can be used with other incentives, such as Live Near Your Work and Buying into Baltimore.

Buyers, do these sorts of incentives make a difference? I'm curious whether they get people off the fence or change buying patterns. The now-gone federal tax credit was widely seen as encouraging people who would have bought a bit later to speed things up -- at a multi-billion-dollar cost.

UPDATE: Here are more specifics from the city about which homes are eligible:

1. A city-owned vacant house sold since July 1, 2010 and rehabbed for homeownership

2. A city-cited property with a "vacant house" notice since July 1, 2010

3. Any property that has been vacant for a year, as long as the evidence of that -- from the seller and/or buyer -- is acceptable to the city

June 14, 2011

City to put on expo about rehabbing vacant homes

Baltimore officials want vacant homes renovated and lived in again, because that fixes a host of problems in one fell swoop. So they're hoping you go this weekend to a city-organized event about -- what else? -- rehabbing vacant homes.

More than 200 people have already registered for the free expo, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, the city's housing department says.

Julie Day, deputy commissioner of land resources at at the agency, known as Baltimore Housing, said the event will offer seminars on choosing a contractor, rehab financing options, understanding the permitting process and the like. The information is aimed at people hoping to redevelop vacants for a living, prospective home buyers looking for a place to fix up and live in, and housing counselors who want to help walk buyers through the process.

Teresa Stephens, director of marketing and community outreach for land resources at Baltimore Housing, said a vacant property "can offer a home buyer a really good opportunity."

"Often it does take a little vision and rose-colored glasses to see it," she added.

Expo participants will get a list of city-owned vacants that were purchased, rehabbed and are now for sale. Ten will be open for viewing Saturday afternoon, Day said. 

Continue reading "City to put on expo about rehabbing vacant homes" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Renovation/rehab, Vacancies

April 22, 2011

Got an idea for that empty storefront? 'Localize' aims to give you a say

If you've ever walked by an empty storefront and wished the owners were taking tenant suggestions, Alexa Baggio has just the thing for you -- or soon will, she hopes.

She's leading a team that's working to launch a start-up called Localize, which will offer a platform to vacant-building owners to let neighbors vote -- via text message -- on what sort of businesses should move in. (A "propertunity," as the team calls it.) Last weekend the fledgling company took second place at the Baltimore Startup Weekend.

The New York resident did an email Q&A with me that explains what made her want to give it a go, how else she hopes the tool can be used and why Baltimore.

Q. How did you get the idea?

A. I kept visiting my hometown and watching storefronts turn over to different variations of the same thing – a failed nail salon replaced by another nail salon, etc. I am passionate about creative small businesses and I wanted to find a way to ensure more of their success. In addition, I was fascinated by the idea of a local investing network – where local investors provide funds for ideas in their backyards that they are interested in. So, I wanted to create a platform to get the community involved in what businesses are created and use that community support to encourage local investment.

Q. When do you expect to launch?

Continue reading "Got an idea for that empty storefront? 'Localize' aims to give you a say" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Vacancies

February 14, 2011

Vacants to Value

January home sale figures meant I was in the office Thursday rather than at the city's Vacants to Value summit, but others went. More than 600, actually, which explains why city officials held the event at the Baltimore Convention Center.

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center's blog has a piece from an attendee. Millie Hrdina gives a brief outline and says the workshop on using vacant homes for purposes other than housing was particularly interesting: "Not only do I feel it is potentially the easiest means to handling a large segment of Baltimore’s blight but quite possibly the cheaper of all the opportunities which exist to us as a community."

A Baltimore architect, Klaus Philipsen, muses on his own blog that Vacants to Value focuses "on disposition" -- getting city properties into private hands, for instance -- "and not so much on what happens afterwards." He suggests forming a "citywide rowhouse recovery agency" charged with getting 6,000 properties rehabbed, arguing that the started-then-stopped rehab projects by "naïve" newcomers "are as bad or worse than the original vacants."

He adds:

What I have in mind are developer and contractor training programs and more systematic screening before awarding properties, also effective monitoring of ongoing work. ... At this point many players on each side enter this world blindly, and have great difficulty finding partners, understanding the rules, the funding options, the possible funding support programs and how to leverage their respective assets optimally.

Colleague Julie Scharper gave an update in a story last week about Vacants to Value sales through this site: "Housing officials now are marketing about 280 homes on a revamped website with detailed descriptions and photos, similar to sites managed by private real estate agents. Since it went live, the city has sold four homes from the site, at prices ranging from $5,500 to $25,000, officials said." (More homes have been sold by other means -- 57 all told since the overall effort was announced in November.)

Did you attend the summit? Have you looked into buying a city-owned property? Do share.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Vacancies

December 13, 2010

Finding city-owned property in Baltimore to buy

Looking for an abandoned property to call your own? Baltimore housing officials launched a site last week listing some of the city-owned properties for sale -- a very small number of them, though they say that will change.

The site, part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's "Vacants to Value" effort to move more properties into the hands of private owners, "will get more interactive as time goes on," housing department spokeswoman Cheron Porter said.

"We decided to offer a limited amount in order to make sure the mechanics of the website were solid before we increased the volume," she said in an email, adding: "Visitors will see more listings in the coming weeks."

Wonk reader JuanitaBeasley, who visited the site last week, was disappointed to find only a small percentage of the roughly 4,000 total vacant buildings the city owns. (I counted 27 over the weekend, though Porter quoted a higher figure on Friday.)

JuanitaBeasley was also struck by the prices. This SCOPE home in Broadway, for instance, is listed for $25,000, which would just be the start of the costs a buyer would need to cover.

"Renovation etc is going to be costly," she wrote, referring in general to the vacant properties.

Prices vary, though. This one in Upton is listed at $7,000.

Porter said prices are based on such factors as comparables, square footage, condition and neighborhood. "Our staff tries to set a fair price based on these criteria," she wrote in her email.

But the set up is supposed to be just like any other for-sale listing: If you're interested but think the price is too high, suggest another figure.

"Reasonable offers will be considered," Porter said.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: For sale, Vacancies

November 16, 2010

Abandoned homes aren't good neighbors

About 5,000 of Baltimore's vacant and uninhabitable homes are on mostly occupied blocks, the city says. When abandonment and residents intersect, things can get ugly.

A family in Wilson Park has been struggling for months and months with the vacant rowhouse next door, which damaged their house. The neighboring home's pipes burst early this year, flooding the Malaneys' basement. Last year, while it was still occupied, its roofing material ripped off during a storm, letting water into the Malaneys' walls and ceilings.

Read more about the Malaney family's woes here.

The city took the fairly unusual step in this case of spending $18,500 to replace the abandoned home's roof and remove moldy drywall, insulation and carpet, hoping that would help the Malaneys' situation when going after the owner proved fruitless. 

Housing officials say that's not an expense they can swing for most vacant properties. In the past three fiscal years, the city stabilized 26 abandoned properties -- half of them last year. More common: "partial" demolitions, where the city removes an unstable portion of a vacant property. It went that route with just over 450 homes in the last three fiscal years, 137 of them last year.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:01 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: The foreclosure mess, Vacancies

November 4, 2010

Mayor announces plan for vacant housing

What's the city's No. 1 housing problem? Most people would say it's the sheer number of abandoned properties, emptied out as the owners died, residents left, people were foreclosed on or investors walked.

As colleague Julie Scharper reports, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has unveiled a vacancy-fighting plan to "expedite the sale of city-owned vacant properties, lure homebuyers with more than $1.5 million in incentives and ratchet up code enforcement on vacant homes in healthy neighborhoods or those primed for development."

It's no easy problem to attack, as Baltimore's previous mayors can attest. And some ideas have been tried before. The city announced in 2005 that it would up the ante on code enforcement on otherwise promising blocks marred by vacant homes, Scharper notes.

Some residents favor the tear-down route, turning vacant structures into vacant lots that are less likely to catch fire and harbor squatters. Detroit, which has an epidemic of abandoned homes, is trying to raze thousands of them.

Finding the money is tricky, though. Baltimore housing officials say the price tag for demolishing a house ranges between $10,000 and $65,000, depending on factors such as size. Detroit -- which doesn't have the money -- is depending on federal help.

The Dominion Group, one of Baltimore's larger real estate investment firms, thinks demolition is a good idea on "dead blocks." Here's how Dominion officials described the vacancy problem in a report to the city (with hard returns added by me for ease of reading):

Continue reading "Mayor announces plan for vacant housing" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Vacancies

May 8, 2009

Emptiest neighborhood? Not one you'd probably guess

Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella took a look at neighborhood vacancies and noticed that the highest rate in the region wasn't a spot in Baltimore or "an area hit by foreclosures." It's at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

In her story today, she notes that about four in 10 homes in a census tract on the Harford County Army base are empty. APG says that's because there are more civilians and fewer soldiers working there, and the base realignment and closure process will accelerate that trend.

The vacancy statistics were collected by the U.S. Postal Service for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and provided by The Associated Press, which found that the emptiest neighborhoods nationally were in the Rust Belt rather than recently-battered places like Las Vegas.

Baltimore, which has some Rust Belt characteristics despite progress made in high tech and biotech fields, is home to the rest of the emptiest areas in the region's top five. All are in East Baltimore.

As if you needed a reminder why long-vacant homes are troublesome for neighborhoods, part of an East Baltimore rowhome collapsed Thursday in a pile of rubble.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Vacancies
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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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