Renters Tax Credit Deadline: September 1

If you area renter and are low-income, a senior citizen, or disabled, you may qualify for a $750 credit on your Maryland income taxes. Go here for more information and to see income guidelines. You can also download the form for 2015 here. (Link opens a PDF.)

The deadline for filing is September 1 — if you’re eligible, don’t wait!

South Baltimore Gateway Plan: Open for Public Comments

For those who live and/or work in South Baltimore, this is a great opportunity to speak your mind regarding the South Baltimore Gateway Plan. The casino has consistently fallen short of meeting its revenue goals, and funds have been diverted to infrastructure improvements that were beneficial to the casino, and not necessarily to residents who live nearby.

The city has asked for your feedback on its draft South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan, a vision for redeveloping the neighborhoods from Pigtown to Cherry Hill, using money from Horseshoe Casino revenue.

You can visit the website to review the draft plan and submit comments during a 30-day public comment period that started Aug. 17. The Baltimore City Department of Planning developed the plan in conjunction with consultants, and based on input gathered from the community during eight public meetings.

Neighborhoods affected include: Key Highway Waterfront, Locust Point, Sharp-Leadenhall, Port Covington and Westport.

(As of this posting, none of the maps would load correctly, and all of the master plan links resulted in a server error. Hopefully this can be resolved before the public comment period closes.)

Monthly Updates

Some highlights from May, June, and July:

May

  • Researched ten properties and suggested some for receivership, reported code violations on others. Worked with three residents to get some of these maintained, to not cause further damage to occupied homes.
  • Wrote nine blog posts.
  • Held the SW Baltimore Industrial Properties Tour, along with Baltimore Heritage and the city’s Planning Department. Forty people attended, and it was a fantastic day!
  • Began investigation of a complaint filed against Fannie Mae (link opens a PDF), alleging “Discrimination in maintaining and/or marketing its real estate owned (“REO”) properties and perpetuation of segregation.”

June

  • Researched eight properties, some of which were causing damage to occupied homes, others seemed to be good candidates for receivership and/or citations for various code violations.
  • Wrote nine blog posts.
  • Continued investigation of Fannie Mae complaint, including a formal FOIA request to HUD for the addresses of allegedly neglected properties.

July

  • Researched ten properties, three occupied properties where the landlord was not maintaining the homes.
  • Wrote nine blog posts.
  • Worked on middle-income housing plan, meeting with developers and other interested parties, to fine tune issues like funding, tax incentives, etc.

Part of August is going to be spent researching public policy issues, in order to create a legislative agenda for 2016.

Mortgage Fraud Scammer Pleads Guilty in Federal Court

Alberic Okou Agodio of Bethesda pleaded guilty on July 21 in Federal Court to several charges arising out of a $3.8 million mortgage fraud scheme involving dozens of Baltimore City homes. Almost all of the homes were located in poor neighborhoods that already struggle with blight and decay. He will be sentenced in October, and is facing a maximum of 30 years in prison, with additional time for identity theft.

His co-conspirator, Kevin Cambpell, plead guilty earlier, and will be sentenced on September 11.

You can read more about Agodio’s plea agreement here.

Tomorrow, June 24: Hearing on Water Shutoff Moratorium

Baltimore City Hall rotunda
Baltimore City Hall rotunda

Make sure your voice is heard tomorrow, June 24, when the City Council holds a hearing on the water bill and shutoff moratorium. If you have an overdue water bill, you could lose your home — if you’re a tenant, this could mean a loss of water services, and/or a new owner for your property.

This is an important issue and residents need to speak out and make sure their concerns are addressed.

The hearing starts at 6:00 PM, Baltimore City Hall, 100 Holliday Street.

If you cannot attend, please email or call your City Council representative and let him or her know how you feel about this issue!

Don’t Lose Your Home to the City’s Tax Sale!

One of the smartest things you can do when you’re in a jam is to reach out and seek help. For those of you who are in danger of losing your home to the annual tax sale, here’s an opportunity to get your questions answered!

MVLS and the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland are sponsoring two clinics in June where residents can receive legal advice, for free, about how they might be able to save their homes.

Thursday, June 4
12:30—4:30 pm
Forest Park Senior Center
4801 Liberty Heights Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21207

Saturday, June 20
10 am—2 pm
Fred B. Leidig Recreation Center
301 S. Beechfield Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21229

Pre-registration is encouraged — please call 443-703-3052 to sign up, or visit the Pro Bono Resource Center’s website for more information.

“My Landlord Won’t Make Repairs, Now What?”

I get a lot of emails from tenants who are living in unimaginable circumstances. No heat or hot water in the winter, basements and walls covered in black mold, flooded basements, even a collapsed ceiling or two. Their circumstances vary, but the question at the end of the email is generally the same:  “What can I do now?”

Let’s rewind a little, and go back to when the problems first started. We’ll assume that you alerted your landlord to the problem immediately. We’ll even give the landlord the benefit of the doubt and assume he or she assured you that the problem would be fixed ASAP, since most landlords see the value in correcting serious defects in their properties. After all, they need to protect their investment. Even so, there are things you should be doing right now, in the beginning.

Document Everything.

Every conversation, whether via email, phone, or in person should be documented with the date, time, and any pertinent information:

  • “Spoke to Mr. Jones on May 8, 2015 at 3:22 PM, told him about the collapsed ceiling, he said he would be right over.”
  • “Mr. Jones showed up at 4:15, looked at the ceiling, and promised to have a contractor here by May 11.”

Also, you should take clear photographs of the conditions, if possible. Nobody’s expecting you to be Ansel Adams, just take clear photos that show what happened. If the problem is something you can’t see, like the lack of heat, take a photo of the thermostat showing that it’s 43 degrees in your home instead of 70. You should also call 311 and report the problem so an inspector can come to your home and write a detailed report about his or her findings.

The point is to have solid documentation that shows you’re serious about taking care of the issue, and that you made every attempt to contact your landlord to get the problems fixed.

What Next?

If, for whatever reason, your landlord is non-responsive and never makes any effort to make the necessary repairs, then it may be time to escalate matters and take your landlord to court. But before doing so, ask yourself two things:

  • Is this issue a matter of health and safety? (In other words, don’t sue someone because you don’t like the paint color, the carpet, or the next-door neighbors.) If it’s not a matter of health and safety, think about whether it’s something you could fix yourself, easily and/or inexpensively.
  • Is this issue worth my time and energy? (If you only have a couple of months left on your lease, can you deal with it and move instead of going to court? I’ll come back to this point later.)

If you decide the issue is worth pursuing, you can file for what’s called “Rent Escrow” in District Court. (Click the link for more detailed information, and the form you need to fill out and file with the court.)

The premise of Rent Escrow is simple:  You go before a judge, detail all of the issues (including all of the documentation we discussed earlier), and explain why you should not be paying rent to your landlord to live in the home until the problems are fixed. You will note that I said “paying rent to your landlord” — if the judge finds there is just cause to proceed, you still have to pay rent. However, the judge can order you to pay your rent (or an adjusted amount) to the court (hence the “escrow” part) where it will be held until such time as the landlord makes repairs, or the judge decides the landlord has had plenty of time to do so and has failed to meet his or her obligation. The money, all or in part, can either be returned to you (if the landlord doesn’t do what has been required by the court) or to the landlord (if he or she makes the necessary repairs in a timely fashion.)

Here’s where the “Is this worth your time and energy?” question comes into play. Going to court is unpleasant, even under the best of circumstances. There’s a reason why “Spending an entire day at the District Court on Fayette Street” is never on anyone’s bucket list, trust me. So give it careful consideration before filing — is this worth your time and energy? Many times the answer is “yes”. You have a long lease period left, or you don’t have the time or money to find a new home and move. Discuss the issue with your friends and family, and seek advice from an attorney. Many attorneys offer a free consultation, and Maryland Legal Aid, the Pro Bono Resource Center, MVLS, and the Public Justice Center can offer advice and/or help, especially if you’re low income.

My goal with this post is not to offer legal advice, but to outline an option that many aren’t aware of. Many issues can indeed be resolved without walking into a courtroom, in fact, many should be resolved without walking into a courtroom. However, if you do find that court is necessary, the more information you have and the more information you can confidently give a judge, the better your chances of making things happen. Best of luck, and don’t hesitate to send an email if you have any questions or just want to vent.

These Things I Know

The past few days have been tough for Baltimore. Fires, looting, injuries, arrests — nobody wants to watch their city fall apart in a matter of days. However, with that said, these incidents were bound to happen — there was a perfect storm of legitimate protest and outliers who saw this as the time to commit acts of destruction against business owners who now need to rebuild, with many of their employees now in need of new jobs so they can take care of their families. This is a dark time in Baltimore, but there is light.

Baltimore is a city of over 200 distinct neighborhoods, covering more than 80 square miles — many of these neighborhoods are mired in poverty, addiction, a lack of resources, and blight, and have been for decades. What we’re seeing today is the result of 50 years of bad public policy, coupled with a lack of accountability and transparency, along with the desire of our government and institutions to protect the status quo at all costs, to protect their own existence to the detriment of our residents. Make no mistake, however — these residents deserve better, and they will demand better — of themselves and of their government.

Once the smoke clears, once neighbors start coming together instead of fighting against each other, we can make this city stronger and better. Perhaps not because of our government, but in spite of it. Ordinary citizens are the most extraordinary catalysts for change — I see this time and time again in some of our poorest, most blighted neighborhoods, and I have every faith that we’ll learn from this, find stronger voices, and create the city residents have needed and wanted for decades. We will demand it, and together, we will make it happen.

Monthly Update

March 2015 Highlights:

  • Started on reformatting all of the data from the Google Maps project, and started dumping all of the data to recreate the Pigtown Crime Map. More maps will follow this month as I finish recreating/reformatting much of the data.
  • Wrote updates on three properties, one of which has a new owner, and two are now making their way through the receivership process.
  • Researched properties on the city’s tax sale list, detailing ownership of a few, and outlined why the city needs better vetting for its municipal auctions/V2V program.
  • Added 14 new properties to the Slumlord Watch blog.
  • Spent quite a bit of time on outreach for those who need assistance with water bills, in order to keep their homes off the tax sale list.
  • Continued to advocate for affordable rental housing — here and here.
  • Worked on the Industrial Properties Project, specifically and event to show the viability of Baltimore’s industrial properties and highlight its industrial past. Details about the event are coming soon. This event is a joint effort with Baltimore Heritage and the Dept. of Planning.
  • Worked with four homeowners and five tenant households on broken water main issues, lease issues, and building code issues, resulting in fines for two landlords so far.

Keep in mind, this isn’t a full list, but just the highlights I thought people would find the most interesting. Stay tuned for next month!

Water, Water, Everywhere

Baltimore City is getting ready to shut off the water of 25,000 people across the city, if the water bill is two months overdue. According to one article, at least one third of those who will lose water are 369 businesses that account for $15,000,000 of lost revenue, and the rest are homeowners and tenants. Low-income residents can apply for a one-time $161 credit on their water bill, if they meet certain requirements. Go here for more information. Also, there is a separate program for low-income senior citizens — go here for information on that program, which can discount your water bill by 39%.

What else can tenants do to protect themselves if their landlord hasn’t paid the bill? The first option would be to pay it yourself. You can go here to find out whether your bill is overdue, by entering your address into the search box, and pay the overdue portion. If you have an absentee/non-communicative landlord, this might be your best option. If you have a good relationship with your landlord, make sure you let him or her know the bill is overdue, and you expect it to be paid in a timely fashion. Whatever you decide, make sure you document all conversations and payments, in case you need to file for rent escrow in District Court later. (Link opens a PDF.)

The repercussions of this decision by our Department of Public Works are severe, and the decision was made with no public input. Here and here are two pieces on how people live when they don’t have water — a basic service we all need, regardless of where we live or income level. As human beings, we are dependent on water for the most basic of hygiene and cooking. The City needs to work with residents to make sure they don’t lose services — particularly renters, as the City requires the water bill to be in the property owner’s name.

The second issue to grapple with is the City’s tax sale to be held in May, where the City auctions off properties that have overdue property taxes and municipal liens, including overdue water bills. The Pro-Bono Resource Center and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service are holding workshops on what to do if your home is about to be auctioned because you have liens, taxes, or overdue water bills. There are two workshops left, and you can get more information on dates and locations here, and you must register.

Lastly, many residents went without water this winter for weeks, due to bust water pipes inside their homes and broken water mains. Until the City addresses these issues, I can’t see how shutting off someone’s water on top of what they had to deal with over the winter is even remotely equitable. Contact your City Council representative and let them know you demand more from your city, and that if the City can’t properly maintain its infrastructure, you shouldn’t bear the fallout of that. Our City Council needs to refocus its priorities onto its residents, and make sure our most vulnerable citizens are not without basic resources, like water.