Let’s Talk About Contractors and Home Improvement

We’ve all watched those shows on HGTV or the DIY Network that show home renovations, kitchen remodels, etc. I’m personally a huge fan of Nicole Curtis, from Rehab Addict and of course This Old House — who doesn’t love Norm and Tom? I like both of these shows, because you see not only the materials and the labor that goes into redoing a home, but you see some of the mundane, like inspections/permits and the difference between quality work, and work that’s..subpar, let’s say. I’m also a big fan of Mike Holmes, since he specifically concentrates on redoing shoddy work performed on homes by dodgy contractors who swindle homeowners.

Unfortunately, we can’t all hire Nicole, Tom, Norm, or Mike. We need a local contractor — and choosing the right one can be a daunting task. How to go about doing this, and how to avoid being ripped off by someone not licensed will be discussed.

First, Do Your Research.

You’ve asked friends and neighbors for recommendations, so now you have a bunch of names. You could call and ask for estimates, and references. But how about taking just a few more steps to protect yourself before you end up with faulty wiring or exploding plumbing?

You want a licensed contractor. With a current license. How do you know whether he or she is licensed? Sure, you could go by the piece of paper they show you, or listen to their assurances, but you also need to verify. You can do that by searching the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR) database:

Check to make sure the license is current, and the name and address of the company or person match what’s on their business card, website, etc.

Next you’ll want to make sure the contractor hasn’t been sued, or maybe you’re concerned that he or she has a criminal record and you’re about to allow them into your home. You can search the Maryland Judiciary by either the person’s name or their company name. Keep in mind, being sued or having a criminal record doesn’t necessarily preclude one from being a decent contractor. I’d be inclined to overlook someone’s petty theft charge from 20 years ago, or a lawsuit filed by a disgruntled customer who paid $1000 for a shed and didn’t receive the Taj Mahal they were expecting. Use your best judgement, as with any research tool, and ask questions of the contractor.

You’ll also want to independently research the company’s work history. Ask for addresses (not just photographs) of homes they worked on recently. Do a drive-by, if it’s exterior work and see how things are holding up. You’ll also want to see whether the contractor obtained permits for the work that was done — remember, no permits means no inspections. And no inspections can lead to dangerous conditions inside your home.

Second, Listen To Your Instincts

If your gut is telling you this guy is “off” or the bids sound a little too good to be true, walk away. Nothing is worth risking your home to someone that doesn’t feel right. If it’s not a good fit, keep going until you find the contractor you can trust. But please — don’t hire unlicensed contractors for large construction projects. Baltimore is full of them, and you have to make sure the people you’re allowing into your home aren’t there to rip you off or do shoddy work you’re going to be stuck replacing sooner rather than later. Your home is probably going to be your single-biggest financial investment — protect that investment and your family.

TOMORROW: Rally to Save Baltimore Civil Rights History

Bethel AME Church has demolished one of Baltimore’s historic civil rights landmarks, located at 1234 Druid Hill Avenue, and it’s unclear as to whether they want to demolish 1232. Neighbors, community activists, and preservationists are horrified by the lack of respect the church has shown towards these historic homes over the years. They’ve allowed them to deteriorate, and showed no effort to preserve them or even perform the most basic of maintenance.

1234 Druid Hill Avenue was the former home of Henry Sythe Cummings, one of the first of two black men to graduate from the University of Maryland Law School, and the first African-American to serve on Baltimore’s City Council. It was also called “Freedom House” as it served as an office of the local NAACP chapter. You can read more about the history of the home here.

Unfortunately, Bethel AME also owns the neighboring home, 1232, and it’s rumored that they’re planning to demolish it in the next few days. Because a parking lot is more important than Baltimore’s civil rights heritage?

Rally to Save Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage

Thursday, November 12, 2015, 1:00pm
1234 Druid Hill Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217
RSVP and share this event on Facebook!

Many thanks to Eli Pousson from Baltimore Heritage and Marti Pitrelli for putting together the event, and for caring about the neighborhood’s history.

City Council Bill 15-0590 Demolition, etc. of City Structures

Baltimore City Hall rotunda
Baltimore City Hall rotunda

This bill would require a City Council hearing before any city-owned property was demolished or reconstructed, giving residents the opportunity to weigh in. Currently, there is no mechanism for citizen input unless the structure falls under the category of historic and requires a Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) hearing.

What You Can Do

Attend a City Council hearing on this bill, November 17, 9:30 AM and make your voice heard. Also, you can email your City Council representative and ask them to vote in favor of City Council bill 15-0590.

Send a Strong Message to the Mayor and City Council Today: Paul Graziano Must Go

Paul Graziano, head of Baltimore City’s Housing Authority has been the subject of scandals over the years, whether personally, or through the agency he runs:

Also, in June of this year, a lawsuit was filed in New York alleging that under Graziano’s tenure in the New York City Housing Authority, the director of a NYCHA-run daycare center was molesting girls, including an infant (Link opens a PDF). The Housing Authority refused to investigate, despite multiple complaints from a worker at the center, who directly observed the director fondling a young girl.

Graziano was not initially named to the suit, but the complaint has been amended:

grazianoPlease take action today, and contact your City Council representative and Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and demand that Paul Graziano be fired immediately. His behavior has not only brought shame and degradation to women and girls in New York and Baltimore, but he’s a blight on our city. Any one of us would have been fired long ago, but yet he’s been here since being hired by Martin O’Malley, outlasting two (almost three) mayors. We cannot allow Mr. Graziano to continue.

2015 Foreclosure Statistics

MD DHCD Foreclosure Map
MD DHCD Foreclosure Map

Maryland continues to be one of five states with the highest bank foreclosure rates — 95% over the national average, with 11,990 foreclosures in Q1 and 12,089 in Q2. Baltimore City and Prince George’s County also continue to see the highest rates in the state. Baltimore City saw a 12.6% increase in the second quarter, and a 17.2% increase over the same time last year, with a total of 2,132 foreclosures in Q2. Baltimore City also had the second-highest number of default notices, at 918, a 25.3% increase over Q2 2014.

Foreclosure Sales

For foreclosure sales, Baltimore City had the second-highest number of sales, at 660 notices, and the largest number of lender purchases, at 735. This number of lender purchases is an 87% increase over last quarter, and a 38.1% increase over Q2 2014.

Foreclosure Hotspots

Four Baltimore City zip codes (21213, 21223, 21217, and 21201) are in what are considered “severe” foreclosure hotspots. The hardest-hit zip code in the state is located in Baltimore City — 21223, with a total of 133 foreclosures. This figure is 272.9% above the state average.

Nine Baltimore City zip codes (21215, 21206, 21229, 21218, 21214, 21205, 21207, 21225, 21202, and 21226) are in “very high” foreclosure hotspots.

Nine Baltimore City zip codes (21216, 21230, 21222, 21239, 21231, 21224, 21211, 21234, and 21212) are in “high” foreclosure hotspots.

Source: Maryland DHCD

Free Legal Clinic: Pro Boo-no Day!

pro_boo_no_dayPro Boo-no Day

9:00 AM to noon, Saturday October 31
Maryland Legal Aid, 500 E Lexington Street.

Attorneys from Maryland Legal Aid, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, and the Pro Bono Resource Center will be on hand to provide brief consultations on a variety of topics:

  • Landlord-tenant
  • Foreclosure
  • Child Custody
  • Bankruptcy
  • …and more!

Don’t let your legal woes, or trouble with your landlord frighten you — register today for this event!

City Council Bill 12-0152 Transform Baltimore: SUPPORT

Baltimore City Hall
Baltimore City Hall

The City Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee is reviewing and voting on the close to 1,000 amendments to Transform Baltimore, the new zoning code, which can be found here. After reviewing and voting on the text amendments, they will begin voting on the map amendments.

Public hearings have been announced for the Land Use and Transportation Committee to discuss map amendments for City Council Bill 12-0152.  The hearings, times and locations are as follows:

October 8, 2015 6:00 pm, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1400 W. Cold Spring Lane

October 13, 2015 6:00 pm, Morgan State University, Murphy Fine Arts Center (Recital Hall), 2201 Argonne Drive

October 15, 2015 6:00 pm, Digital Harbor High School, 1100 Covington Street

October 21, 2015 6:00 pm, Southeast Anchor Library, 3601 Eastern Avenue

The Zoning maps to be discussed with relevant Planning Commission recommended amendments are here: http://rewritebaltimore.org/pdf/AllCouncilMaps_Amendments1023.pdf

Also, zoning changes can be searched by address here http://cityview.baltimorecity.gov/rezoningpubliccomments/.

What You Can Do Now:

Email the members of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, and ask that they support the new zoning code. Baltimore City needs better zoning in our neighborhoods — not just downtown and at the harbor. The one piece of the zoning code that has the most power to transform our communities is the new Neighborhood Commercial code. (Link opens a PDF). Putting vacant properties back into reuse can not only alleviate much of the blight in our communities, it can also create jobs and help to jumpstart lackluster neighborhood economies.

If you have any questions regarding Transform Baltimore, please contact the comprehensive planner for your neighborhood.

Why Policy Matters

Photo of the US CapitolPublic Policy. It shapes everything we do and dictates what we shouldn’t do. Sometimes it acts in place of common sense, which I find both troubling and puzzling. It can make us stronger, but it can also destroy us. But what is it, really, and how do we go about striking a balance between what is just and good, and what is guided by self-interest and greed?

In the context of housing, particularly in a city like Baltimore, you’d have to travel back in time about 50 years to see where things went awry. I’ll spare you the history lesson, because much has been written on the subject of discriminatory housing laws in Baltimore — the who, what, when, and how. If you’d like to do some reading on your own, please consider purchasing “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by Antero Pietila. I have no less than three copies of this book, and I consider it to be the gold standard when it comes to the history of housing in Baltimore City. If you do read it, pay close attention to the names in the book — you’ll find that the names will sound very familiar to you if you live here. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.

In 1968, the US government passed the Fair Housing Act, the first piece of Federal legislation that prohibited discrimination in housing, for both renters and homeowners. It came about as a larger civil rights effort to grant equality in all areas. However, like most laws, some followed it…and some didn’t. And still don’t. This is where policy work is important — not just the enforcement piece, but to ensure that people understand they have rights and how to go about exercising those rights when things go wrong. I’ll give you an example of modern-day discrimination:

I moved to Baltimore in 2000, knowing very little about the city beyond the Inner Harbor. I solicited the services of a realtor to find a home to rent. I found listings online that I would send to her periodically, including a large Victorian home on Liberty Heights Avenue. She flat-out refused to show me most of the homes I requested to see and said “Oh you don’t want to live in that neighborhood.” Considering the fact that she was a white lady of (shall we say) a certain age, I chalked it up to her being a racist…so I fired her.

My next realtor was a young African-American woman, thinking that she would be a little hipper and perhaps open-minded, I again sent her links to homes I wanted to see, and made it quite clear that I was firmly resolved to living in the city, not in the suburbs. And not in a majority-white neighborhood, either. I wanted to actually live in the city, not in some weird faux-suburban bubble. Turns out she did the same thing the first realtor did. She steered me away (pay attention to the word “steered”) from all the homes I wanted to see, and instead took me to see a home behind the Walmart on Route 40 in Catonsville.  I fired her, too, right after that.

“But Carol, you should thank these women. They might have saved you from living in a bad neighborhood.”

Actually, what they did was break the law. They engaged in something called “steering”. And it’s one of the most common ways realtors and other real estate professionals sometimes employ discriminatory practices, in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Add that to the recent incidences of redlining (the practice of not lending money to potential homeowners based on race, gender, etc.) — we still, even in 2015, have a large number of people who are unable to move to better opportunities and create stable lives for themselves and their families. Even worse, add in the incidents of blockbusting that began the decline of many of Baltimore’s communities 50 years ago — communities that are now the city’s most blighted and crime-ridden, as a direct result. Blockbusting, like steering and redlining, continues even now.

The recent mortgage meltdown opened up yet another Pandora’s box: a rental bubble. With so many foreclosed homes, investors saw an opportune time to enact another get-rich-at-the-expense-of-others scheme. People who lost their homes to foreclosure need rentals. The foreclosed homes were selling cheaply, and why not snap them all up for a song and rent them at a price higher than what the local economy can bear? While not illegal, there has been a negative consequence — an unsustainable market that continues to drive away median-income renters who can no longer afford to live in Baltimore. People who earn the median are also generally the largest taxpaying group of residents — in other words, they’re the folks who pay for things like the fire department and trash collection, along with other city services. A city cannot survive over the long-term without a large middle-class taxpaying population — and Baltimore’s is dwindling.

Changing public policy, along with the enforcement of current laws, is critical to the health of our city. Without that component, all of the hard work we do is for naught. We must protect the rights of residents to live where they choose, and not where mortgage brokers and realtors choose. We also must protect the city’s tax base by providing affordable rental housing to those who need it. We must change housing policy to benefit residents first, not politicians and multi-million dollar developers. We must make this a priority. Because even in the most abstract sense, policy matters. Policy is what we need to grow and become a healthier, safer city for all residents, not just those at the top of the income scale.

Baltimore County Residents: Support County Bill 58-15

Baltimore County, Maryland sealSponsored By: Councilman David Marks, District 5

Bill Information: This bill would impose a penalty on property owners who have repeatedly allowed their tenants to hold unruly social gatherings on their premises, particularly those that involve underage drinking. Previously the law applied to homeowners, but would now include landlords and property management companies. You can download the full text of 58-15 here.

Why This Bill is Important: In 2013 alone, underage drinking cost Maryland residents approximately $1.6 billion (link opens a PDF) in lost wages, medical costs, property damage, EMS services, etc. Parents and homeowners are already held to the law regarding underage drinking and social gatherings — landlords and property management companies should be held to the same standard when it comes to what their tenants are inflicting on the surrounding neighbors, and no longer be allowed to maintain a “hands-off” position.

What You Can Do Now: Contact your County councilperson now, and ask them to support this bill. The bill will come to a vote on Tuesday, September 8th — please gather support now!

South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan Meeting

This is the last meeting scheduled before the plan will be adopted by the Baltimore City Planning Department. Please add this to your calendar, if you live/work in or near South Baltimore, and make sure your comments are heard.

When:  Wednesday, September 9, 2015, 6:30 PM (You have to register prior to the meeting, and registration starts at 6 PM)

Where: Montgomery Park, 1800 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21230. Montgomery Park is located at the corner of Washington Boulevard and S. Monroe Street, directly across Monroe Street from Carroll Park. Free parking is available at Montgomery Park.

For more information, or if you have any questions, please call Brenton Flickinger, Southern District Planner at 410-386-5936.