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?

1 comment:

Brian and Beth Morrison said...

There is a lot to respond to here!

First and foremost, thanks to Bill Cole for your continued interest in our neighborhood and tireless support to resolve issues that have faced our neighborhood for not only years, but decades...

With so many hard questions to respond to, I'll try to answer your 3rd question, then comment on Project 5000... Leaving SCOPE for someone else to chime in on.

You asked to state assets and obstacles to home ownership in Reservoir Hill.

- great base of homesteading home owners, a bit worn out from many years of trying, but still willing to fight put their time and energy into revitalizing their neighborhood.
- all the normal stuff people throw out.. architecture, druid hill park, reservoir, Maryland Zoo, easy access to 83, close to penn station, light rail, metro, MICA, revitalized Mondawmin, etc etc.
- ever strengthening block clubs and neighborhood organizations such as RHIC
- great 11th district councilman ;)
- historic status and potential historic rehab tax credits and availability of Healthy Neighborhood Loan program
- great diversity of people. At over 90% African American there isn't too much racial diversity, but the mix of lifestyle, income, age, religion, profession is far ranging.

(whitelock commerical and revitalizing Callow Ave)

- amenities you can walk to. This is crucial.. the local restaurant/bar, hardware store, grocery, coffee shop, cafe, etc. This has to happen correctly and sustainably on Whitelock. The upcoming RFP in this area is so crucial to putting Reservoir Hill in a better environment for growth and home ownership..
- vacancy. Our number one concern is our 'hole in the donut'.. The 2200-2400 blocks of Callow Ave need focused incentives to get large number of home owners moved in...

I'll keep my more heated comments about Project 5000 and SCOPE under wraps, but will say these initiatives, for the most part, have been detrimental to Reservoir Hill. Of course there are success stories, and the overall idea of these initiatives makes sense, but the planning and execution have been fraught with problems, exuding a sense of greed over true concern to reduce blight and revitalize, while creating wounds that residents have a hard time healing.

One case in point is Callow Ave redevelopment.. 15 Project 5000 homes, scooped up by city before potential home owners could contact property owners to buy and rehab. After acquired, they were offered to developer at low cost, with premise of market rate home ownership. This drives cost up for end home owner, usually means cheaper work and finishes to increase profit for developer. If these homes were offered to actual home owners, they would hire their own General Contractor, design the layout of home and finishes inside to suite their needs. No Mark up ! Most of these homes sit unfinished. The small amount of ones which are finished after 4 years, the developer is now asking to rent instead of sell to home owners. Is this all due to a greedy developer? not exactly, the developer probably spent over a year just trying to wade through red tape and actually acquire the properties, having no ability to negotiate as the city raised the prices of the homes after the developer bid on the project and won the Exclusive Negotiating Privileges with the city.