2014 Wrap-Up

Blighted vacant homes in BaltimoreAs 2014 draws to a close, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of the work that’s been happening over the past year. You can support this work by going here and making a tax-deductible contribution that will be matched by the Warnock Foundation.

A total of 263 posts were written, between this website and the Baltimore Slumlord Watch project’s website.

Of those posts, we managed to highlight a total of 234 blighted nuisance properties, and updated you on 25 properties that were written about over the years. 18 of those properties were or are in some stage of the receivership process. Other issues that we pushed to the forefront in 2014:

  • Affordable rental housing for working families
  • The failure of our city and state property records
  • Strengthening Maryland’s housing laws to allow for honest property owners to shine, while ridding us of the financial and personal burdens of dealing with the bad ones.
  • Highlighting historically significant properties, and properties that have stories behind them that are worth sharing.
  • Showcasing well-done rehabs, giving encouragement to those who want to own and rehab properties within the bounds of the law.
  • Sending more viable properties to Baltimore Housing, in order to move them into receivership.

A few other 2014 highlights:

  • Three projects were started in other cities to draw attention to lax code enforcement and nuisance properties, bringing the total number of BSW-inspired projects to seven nationwide.
  • Completed two neighborhood maps (crime and property transfers), showing property ownership types in relation to areas of high crime. Work continues on the citywide map, and we’ve added a second neighborhood to the neighborhood mapping project.
  • Assisted neighbors with 37 nuisance properties, resulting in citations and cleanup efforts through referral to city agencies like Baltimore Housing and DPW, and community groups.

You can read about the upcoming work we’d like to accomplish in 2015 here and here. None of this work could be accomplished without all of the residents who email and leave comments on both websites, send photos, call about nuisance properties, share our work on Facebook and Twitter, and of course — donate. Your financial contribution is so important to keeping both of these projects alive, and right now your donations are being doubled by a matching fund from the Warnock Foundation, allowing for even more accomplishments in 2015. Please donate today!

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Forward to 2015: The Year of the Neighborhoods!

A Baltimore neighborhood
A Baltimore neighborhood

2015 is bringing some interesting challenges, but with challenges come opportunities. I’ve decided that here at HPW, 2015 is going to be the Year of the Neighborhoods. We’ll be focusing on making our neighborhoods stronger and safer, and also cleaner. Projects and activities are being planned — if your neighborhood is interested in participating, sign up for the mailing list and stay tuned!

The most exciting project I want to get started on is a showcase of Baltimore’s industrial properties and history, starting in SW Baltimore. We have so many empty industrial buildings — why not get them back into use, and put residents back to work? Of course we can’t do this without support — so if you’d like to make a tax-deductible contribution, please do.

Looking forward to hearing from folks, particularly from residents on the western side of town — I want your ideas, your thoughts, your stories, and your participation! Let’s make Baltimore a better, stronger city for all its residents!

Weatherization and Help With Heating Costs

thermostatMany people in Baltimore, and across Maryland, live without heat during the winter due to high utility bills.  Making your home more energy-efficient, and getting help to lower those bills is critical — especially for those with young children, or seniors.  Follow the links below if you are in need, and please make sure your neighbors are safe this winter!

Weatherization Resources

Help With Utility Bills

Baltimore Office of Home Energy Programs (also information about weatherization)

Maryland Department of Human Resources Home Energy Programs (Statewide information)

Support City Council Bill 13-0293

Blighted vacant homes in Baltimore
Blighted vacant homes in Baltimore

Introduced in the Baltimore City Council by Councilman Henry (District 4), this bill would expand the definition of vacant houses, giving Baltimore Housing the ability to levy fines against blighted nuisance properties faster, and impose harsher penalties against owners who did not comply. (Source: WBAL)

Many of our vacant structures are owned by absentee landlords, banks, or holding companies that have no plans to fix the problems — and have allowed these homes to fall into disrepair. Expanding the city’s ability to fine these owners and hold them accountable should go a long way towards cleaning up some of our blighted neighborhoods.

Two things that also need to happen, in order for this to be a success:

  1. The bill, once law, needs to be enforced. That could mean a line-item increase in Baltimore Housing’s budget for additional qualified housing inspectors.
  2. If these properties are sold at a municipal tax sale when the owners don’t pay the fines, there needs to be strict vetting of the people purchasing the homes, as to not further the chain of irresponsible ownership.

If the city is prepared to do these two things, let’s support this bill and make sure it becomes law. Contact your City Council representative and let them know you want this to pass — and let them know you expect there to be a clear plan for disposition of the properties, once seized.

For City Council district contact information, go here.

 

As Temperatures Drop…

BCFD on Ward Street in Pigtown, 2013
BCFD on Ward Street in Pigtown, 2013

…instances of fatal fires and carbon monoxide poisoning go up.  Don’t add to these dreadful statistics — be proactive and keep your family safe.

Baltimore City residents can call 311 or go online to request smoke detectors. The fire department will bring and install them — for free. You should have one on every floor of the house, and make a plan for what happens should one go off in the middle of the night.

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas that can be deadly. The biggest sources of carbon monoxide in the home are the furnace, cars left running in an attached garage, boilers, and dirty/blocked chimneys. Before using your fireplace, have your chimney checked for debris or cracks! You should also have a CO detector/alarm on every floor of the house. They can be purchased online or in stores for not a lot of money — and they save lives.

If you cannot afford your energy bills this winter, please don’t wait until your BGE is turned off for nonpayment.  Go here to get more information on energy assistance in Maryland. Using a kerosene heater increases your chances of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning exponentially, and using candles for lighting your home could result in a fatal fire. Your life, and that of your family and pets, is precious — don’t wait until you have an emergency to look for help.

There’s no shame in asking for help when you’ve hit a bump in the road. Job loss, foreclosure, health issues that resulted in astronomical medical bills, unexpected expenses — these things can happen to anyone. It’s better to get the help you need now, before winter comes and your home is unsafe.

Lastly, if you have neighbors who are elderly, particularly if they’re low-income, please check on them from time to time, and make sure they’re safe.

Great News!

We’re embarking on a huge fundraising push for HPW and the work we do here, and starting now — every donation you give will be matched by a foundation grant, up to $30,000.  One of the critical items on any organization’s fundraising list is grassroots support.  Residents and businesses — the economic challenges Baltimore faces, and has faced for the past two decades — those affect you, no matter which neighborhood you live or work!

Six years ago we started a conversation about vacant housing — one that has received national and international attention.  Now it’s time to make sure our city and state officials close the door to bad development and negligent property owners, and open the doors for people who want to make our city a better place to live, work, and play.  Your tax-deductible contribution is the only way we’re able to continue this work. For six years we’ve been (literally) in the city’s neighborhoods, and fighting hard for better transparency in government, better use of our tax dollars, and a better city overall.  With your help, we’ll be able to see a safer, stronger, city — especially with this matching grant!

Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution today!

Thank You!

Many, many thanks to everyone who came to Friday night’s fundraiser — it was so wonderful to meet many of you and talk about what we’re doing now, and what we hope to accomplish in the future! Most of the art pieces sold, so a special thank you to all of the artists who donated their work (and their time).  One of the pieces that did not sell — an amazing sculpture by Paula Ibey, will be offered through a special online auction soon!

Also, a big thank you to Zella’s and Blacksauce Kitchen for their food and beverage donations.  If you’ve never had pizza from Zella’s go ASAP.  You’ll soon see why they’re always voted “Best Pizza”, and Blacksauce’s cider-braised chicken with biscuits…to die for. It’s so nice to find companies that are supportive of our work — much appreciated!

If you did not attend, and would like to make a tax-deductible contribution towards our work, please go here.

One thing happened that was a bit…odd.  A landlord/property owner showed up and made a bit of a fuss — it appeared he was slightly inebriated before walking in the door.  He proceeded to give me quite the dressing down about the number of citations he’s received from the city about the construction debris at one of his properties.  Apparently he doesn’t think he’s required to get a Dumpster or Dumpster permit, and according to him, property owners like him are the only reason why Baltimore is showing any signs of improvement. Unfortunately, he began to taunt and threaten another guest and had to be removed.

But I would like to thank that guy for crashing the party — because every time one of these folks opens their mouth about why they don’t have to follow the law, and it’s everyone’s fault but theirs, and why they’re right and everyone else is wrong — it only clarifies how much work their is left to do, and how wonderful it would be if people like him would take their business elsewhere.  For every lawbreaking property owner who thinks he’s above the law that we can get rid of, it opens the door for someone who does want to follow the rules and create decent housing for those who want to live in our city.

Just remember, folks — public policy created the window for opportunists like this guy and others, public policy allows them to proliferate, and public policy can and should put a stop to them.  We can do this!

Early Voting Begins Today!

Remember — voting is one of the easiest and best ways to make sure your voice is heard when it comes to the issues you care about.  There are no perfect candidates — nobody is going to fix everything immediately, but this is an opportunity to make sure you have a choice in who represents you!

In Baltimore City, you can vote at the following locations:

  • Public Safety Training Facility
    (Old Pimlico Middle School)
    3500 W. Northern Parkway
    Baltimore, MD 21215
  • St. Brigids Parish Center
    900 S. East Avenue
    Baltimore, MD 21224
  • Maritime Industries Academy School #431
    Rear Entrance
    5001 Sinclair Lane
    Baltimore, MD 21206
  • League for People with Disabilities
    1111 East Coldspring Lane
    Baltimore, MD 21239
  • Edmondson Westside Sr. High School #400
    501 Athol Avenue
    Baltimore, MD 21229
  • University of Maryland Baltimore
    621 W. Lombard Street, 2nd Floor
    Baltimore, MD 21201
    FREE PARKING Pratt Street Garage only. Enter at 646 W. Pratt Street.

For other locations across Maryland, or for directions/more information on early voting, go here.  If you can’t take advantage of the early voting, you can still vote on election day, November the 4th.  To find your November polling place, go here.

Thinking About 2015

Photo of Maryland State House, Annapolis
State House, Annapolis, MD

It’s never too early to start thinking about legislative priorities for 2015.  We have a few issues that we’ll be working on, just in time for the start of Maryland’s legislative session in January, and we want to hear your priorities, too:

  • LLC transparency
  • Transfer of real estate
  • Historic preservation
  • Affordable housing, based on local economics
  • Better vetting and enforcement for purchasers of City-owned property

Why these are important

LLC transparency is something we’ve pushed for in the past two legislative sessions, yet the bill introduced by Delegate Steve Lafferty has yet to pass.  Some have suggested the bill is anti-business, which is entirely untrue.

Giving residents a way to contact businesses, including property owners, that do not operate a brick-and-mortar storefront or office is actually a sound business practice.  It opens the door for communication between business/property owners and the public, and could potentially allow for far less government involvement, as issues could be resolved faster and easier, without fines or court proceedings. This bill could save businesses a lot of money in the long run.

Property transfers, particularly in Baltimore City, have not been closely monitored. In many instances, properties are “flipped” between buyers who do not record their deeds, and therefore do not pay the transfer fees to the state or to the City, and it allows negligent property owners to hide behind the previous owner’s information. This results in more work on the part of Baltimore Housing’s Code Enforcement and Legal divisions, and more frustration on the part of residents who experience issues with these properties and cannot find accurate ownership information.

Historic preservation, particularly in a city like Baltimore that seems to be experiencing an identity crisis — especially over the past decade or so — is important to creating a sustainable city. Knocking down our historic structures, or leaving them to rot, is not a development strategy.  We must celebrate and build on Baltimore’s history, in order to move forward in a sustainable way. We would like to see more money allocated to neighborhood historic preservation, and less allocated to development projects that do not reflect the needs of current residents — particularly in our more marginalized neighborhoods.

Affordable rental housing is a top priority for 2015.  Baltimore has a median income of $40,000, yet “affordable” housing rental rates are based on a percentage of the Metropolitan Statistical Area median income, set by HUD.  This number does not take into account the local economic climate of each municipality, and therefore sets a “fair market” rent that is out of reach of most residents, especially those who do not qualify for subsidized housing. We must shore up our middle class in order to create a broader tax base. Otherwise, we can expect more attempts to cut services like the fire department, rec centers, parks, and trash collection.

Monitoring the vetting of who is purchasing city-owned property has become a growing concern over the past two years. The City created its Vacants to Value program in 2010, with much fanfare.  However, research into who is purchasing the city-owned vacants paints a not-so-rosy picture. The largest “company” purchaser…is the city’s Housing Authority.  The largest individual purchaser is a disbarred attorney who testified in Federal Court that he and a group of other attorneys participated in a municipal auction bid-rigging scheme.  Taxpayers cannot continue footing the bill for court proceedings and sham municipal auctions — we need to clear the way for honest businesses and honest individuals who want to call our city home.

What are your 2015 priorities?  Because this is a resident-driven project, send your thoughts — we want to make sure as many voices are included as possible.

Join Us! October 24, 7 to 11 PM

Please join us for Pretty Vacant: A Silent Auction and Fundraiser, October 24th from 7 to 11 PM.  Featuring art from some local and international artists, food, drinks — the event is being held at Gallery 788, 3602 Hickory Avenue, in Hampden.  The event is free, but come prepared to bid!  Proceeds to benefit Housing Policy Watch, and a portion of your winning bid is tax deductible!

Featured Artists:

Please use the Eventbrite page or Facebook event page to RSVP.