Thursday, June 5, 2008

New Ideas for Vacant Houses

Councilman William H. Cole

Reservoir Hill is a neighborhood with outstanding potential. Centrally located, the neighborhood has access to the largest park in Baltimore City and is within walking distance to light rail, MARC, and other forms of mass transit. It is within two miles of Johns Hopkins University, Coppin State College, the University of Baltimore, and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

It is a neighborhood with superior architecture and large, well-built houses. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen some of these properties converted from single family homes to condominiums or multiple-unit apartment buildings. While these large properties are certainly conducive to granny apartments that provide additional income for the property owner, finding the right balance between homeownership and rental is a constant struggle.

Today Reservoir Hill faces two significant obstacles to increasing home-ownership:

Vacant houses: There are 30,000 vacant properties city-wide, nearly 200 of which are in Reservoir Hill. Vacant houses clearly attract crime and adversely affect property values.

Speculators who buy houses with no intention of improving them: They leave houses vacant and dilapidated until they can realize a profit. As a result, they drive house prices up, making them unaffordable to many, while adding no value to the community.

To reduce the number of vacant and/or abandoned properties, the city has a number of programs (Project 5000, SCOPE) and will soon embark on an ambitious Land Bank project in an effort to reduce bureaucratic red tape and get properties into the hands of potential homeowners more quickly.

No single housing program will work for all communities, or even for all circumstances in one community. A home-ownership program has to fit both the specific situation and the realistic potential.

A successful home-ownership program must (a) provide incentives to individuals who intend to live in the houses they purchase, (b) provide new home-owners with the tools they need to succeed, and at the same time, (c) discourage speculators from taking houses off the market and leaving them vacant.

Not currently part of the city’s house-rescue or home-ownership plans is the Dollar House Program, a successful program of the 1980’s. (Example: Otterbein neighborhood). A modified Dollar House program, designed to take advantage of Reservoir Hill’s assets and overcome the obstacles, could eliminate many of the city-owned vacant houses and increase home-ownership.

To succeed, the program must have several essential elements:

l Owner-occupied within 18 months,
l Assistance/support for new home-owners including financial counseling and debt planning.
l Specific deadlines for renovations in stages depending on the size of the house.
l Minimum length of residency, with penalty (repaying tax credits) if requirement is not met.
l Houses grouped in such a way that new home-owners can form mutually supportive networks with Dollar House neighbors.

An example of a successful project for a large house:
The new owner renovated the first floor within 18 months and moved in. While living on the first floor, she renovated the 2nd and 3rd floors. She then moved up to the 2nd and 3rd floors and rented the first floor. Applying the rental income to her mortgage made the project affordable for her.

If you had to create a housing rehabilitation program for the city, what would it look like?

Do you think a Dollar House program would work in Reservoir Hill? Why? Why not?

What do you see as assets and obstacles to increased home-ownership in Reservoir Hill?

What suggestions do you have for opportunities/remedies?