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I’m starting to work on a new project, and need help with fundraising.

This project is a joint effort between Housing Policy Watch and the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, an elementary-middle school located in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore, and the neighborhood’s only school for students in grades six through eight. Two sixth grade teachers and the school administration have committed to this project, for the 2016-2017 school year.

School Neighborhood Demographics

Pigtown is a community located in Southwest Baltimore that has seen a large increase in the number of vacant homes and low-end rental homes, along with a decrease in owner-occupied homes.

  • 36% of neighborhood households earn less than $25,000 a year
  • 49% of residents are African-American
  • 56% of all households are female-head single parent households, with children under the age of 18
  • 30% of all children in the neighborhood live below the poverty line
  • Approximately 43% of people of working age (16-64) are unemployed.
(Source: US Census Bureau)

The Project

For the school year 2016-2017, fifty sixth grade students will be working alongside their teachers and Carol Ott, Director of Housing Policy Watch, to document vacant properties in their respective neighborhoods, and research property ownership and social/economic conditions that lead to vacancy. Students will also learn how to use the data collected by creating an advocacy campaign around vacancy, jobs, transportation, and other conditions present in their respective neighborhoods. The project will culminate in a presentation in front of the Baltimore City Council, where the students will present their recommendations and desired outcomes.

Each student will be given forms and the ability to photograph the properties, and safely assess each property’s condition, i.e., broken windows, unsecured front door, collapsed roof. The students will also have the opportunity to add notes, and along with their adult volunteer chaperone, will give each property a blight scale rating, depending on the conditions present.

Please note, the children will be doing this exercise from the sidewalk, and their adult volunteers will not allow or encourage them to enter the homes or walk around to the rear of any of the properties. The exercise will only take place during daylight hours and under the strict supervision of teachers, parents, or other vetted adult volunteers. Prior to starting the data collection, Baltimore Housing will provide a list of properties or blocks that are either:

  • Slated for demolition, or
  • Deemed to be structurally or otherwise unsound.

Any properties on the “Unsound” list will not be assessed in this exercise, as the children’s safety is of the utmost importance.

After the data collection period has ended, the students will start to research ownership of the properties, any interesting historical or human-interest facts and stories that are tied to each property, and look at social/economic conditions that may have led to the abandonment of the properties as a group, by neighborhood.

Once the research phase of the project has ended, the students will then begin to develop an advocacy campaign around vacancy and housing, and formulate solutions for each neighborhood, taking into consideration each neighborhood’s unique location and market conditions.

The aggregate data, along with the students’ solutions will be presented to the Baltimore City Council before the end of the school year, no later than June of 2017.

Why This Project is Important

In May of 2016, I spoke to both sixth grade classes about lead paint and vacancy, and how the students could take ownership of their communities by becoming more involved in sharing their thoughts about the world around them. I found the students to be incredibly well-informed about the topic at hand (lead paint and its effects on children), and very engaging on a level beyond their years.

This project would address two important issues:

  • Students need a hands-on approach to real-world job skills, and at a young age. Data collection, data analysis, and research are important tools the kids will use throughout their academic careers, and will better prepare them for the rigors of high school, college, and employment.
  • Training students how to be their own best advocates will also translate to other parts of their lives. The same skills used during this exercise can apply to negotiating with parents, teachers, and friends. Also, teaching them how to advocate in a strategic way will develop critical thinking skills, communication skills, and an openness to listening, and learning new methods of dealing with seemingly overwhelming problems.

Additional Information

This project is a pilot, based on the successful outcomes of the Baltimore Slumlord Watch project. As Project Lead, I will be able to use my eight years of experience working on the issue of blight and vacancy, in order to assist the students with their research. If successful, the project will move to another school for the following year.

Jason Hessler, Deputy Commissioner for Baltimore Housing’s Legal Division has agreed to participate in the project, by talking to the students about vacancy and the receivership process. Michael Braverman, Deputy Commissioner for Baltimore Housing’s Code Enforcement Division has expressed an interest in receiving the data collected by the students, in the hopes that we’re able to identify additional vacants currently not known to Housing. Also, Councilman Bill Henry has agreed to assist with the project.

Two local foundations were approached with regard to fundraising, both declined. We really need your help with this, please donate today!

Restructuring: An Update

After a lot of soul-searching and careful thought, I’ve decided to take this project in a new and more effective direction, while maintaining the hands-on approach that’s worked so well over the past few years. Here are some updates:

I am committed to continuing the work with residents who are either living in deplorable conditions, or adjacent to nuisance vacant homes. We’ve had a lot of success together, whether holding landlords accountable to their tenants, having nuisance vacants cleaned up and/or moved into receivership with Baltimore Housing, or developing plans for communities so they can do the work themselves. I want these successes to continue, without charging poor communities and residents — a practice I find downright disturbing.

Something I’ve neglected over the past few months was fundraising. And to be perfectly honest, it’s something I’m not good at doing, nor do I enjoy it. I’m working with a colleague to develop a better strategy for this, particularly since it’s been made clear that despite our successes and accomplishments, local Baltimore funders are not open to the idea of furthering our work. Hopefully with a new strategy, and looking elsewhere for a sustainable annual budget, we will be able to not only continue our work, but bring others into the fold, in order to expand our reach and capacity. (That’s nonprofit speak for “hiring more people so we can do more work”.)

Walking away from this for a couple of days has been enlightening, to say the least, and it’s left me with a stronger commitment to getting the job done. There was no sense of relief, no “Thank God that’s over.” As I continue to work on my health and work on the plans for the future, please know that your emails and messages have been received and appreciated. Please don’t ever hesitate to reach out if you have comments or suggestions, or find yourself in a housing situation you can’t see your way out of. That’s what we do, and will continue to do in the future. Because you, and this city, are worth the time and effort it will take to ensure that all residents have healthy, affordable housing.

 

Stepping Away

Friends, donors, and colleagues:

Effective immediately, this project will be on hiatus for an undetermined amount of time.

I want to thank you for your support and encouragement, along with your generous financial contributions over the past few years. I can’t adequately explain how difficult this decision has been, or how many tears have been shed over the last couple of days. This is honestly one of the hardest, most unpleasant decisions I’ve ever had to make — to walk away from a job, and work that I truly believe in. We’ve (and I mean that “we” — you were just as much a part of this success as I was) accomplished so many things over the years together, and I had hoped we could continue on this journey to make Baltimore a safer, stronger city. However, some things became quite clear over the years, and I’m hoping that by writing about it, we can start to change the culture that has been choking the life out of our city and the people who work hard to bring about sustainable change.

I received a total of two grants for this work over the past eight years. Both from people who clearly understood that we’re not going to change our city for the better by issuing more useless reports, or studying why Baltimore is such a mess. We know why our city is dying — racist public policy, combined with a lack of political will to fix it both at the local and state level, along with a hefty dose of an unwillingness by our “anchor institutions” to be on the ground partners. We know this. We don’t need further studies and reports — what we need is for our city’s charitable foundations to understand that in order to change this city, we need people who are willing to fight by any means necessary to destroy a system that has allowed our city to decline almost to the point of no return. That fight is messy and difficult — it’s not easily put into a pretty box and tied with a pretty bow. It’s not easily quantified. It’s not done by committee, or by sitting on our collective asses in a conference or meetings.

We need for the strong people who fight for our city to do so unfettered and unhindered, and with adequate funding. We need to encourage and support these people as though our lives depend on it — because they do. We need to change how Baltimore does business, both in the for-profit and non-profit sector.

I have two projects left to complete under Housing Policy Watch, and I’ll also (hopefully) working on some other things in the near future, continuing the hope that one day I can walk away from this city knowing that the hard work, the tears, and the frustration were worth it — if not for my children, then perhaps for yours.

Until next time,

Carol Ott
Director

Free Utility Bill Legal Clinic for Seniors

The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland is hosting a free legal clinic for seniors where you can receive legal advice about your water or gas and electric bills.

Date and Time: Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Location: Southeast Community Action Center, 3411 Bank Street, Baltimore, MD 21224

The clinic is open to Baltimore residents, age 60 and over. You should bring the following with you:

  • Copies of your most recent utility bills
  • Letters or notices from utility companies, courts, or attorneys
  • Proof of income

Pre-registration is encouraged. Please contact the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at 443-703-3052 to register.

utility-bill-clinics

 

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Contact Your City Council Representative: Proposed Changes to CCC Routes are Bad for Baltimore

Source: Charm City Circulator
Source: Charm City Circulator

The Charm City Circulator, a free shuttle system that connects many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods to downtown is in jeopardy, and your help is needed.

The Banner Route, which runs from Locust Point (including Fort McHenry, a popular tourist destination) to downtown, could be eliminated.

The extension to the Purple Route, from Penn Station to Charles Village has only been operating for 10 months, yet Mayor Rawlings-Blake has proposed ending the extension.

The Green Route, running from City Hall to Fells Point, could be eliminated.

Baltimore is a large city, geographically, yet our transit options are poor. Eliminating the CCC routes will take away yet another option for tourists and residents to get around downtown without having to drive.

Please contact your City Council representative and let them know we need more transit options, not less, and the CCC routes must be preserved. You can also attend one of the public meetings and make your voice heard:
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Baltimore Museum of Industry
1415 Key Hwy
Baltimore, MD 21230

Thursday, September 1, 2016
6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
St. Leo’s The Great Church
227 S. Exeter Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Thursday, September 8, 2016
6:00 PM to 8:00PM
Maryland Bio Park
801 W. Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Baltimore Sustainability Plan Survey

From the Baltimore Department of Planning:

We’re very lucky to have strong ties with Baltimore’s communities through the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability and various other forums and partnerships. But we know that one of the best ways to connect with people and learn what they’re doing and what they need is to empower experts and leaders from those communities to take the lead. They are the ones best placed to spread the word and listen to what their friends and neighbors have to say.

Our priority in this process and for the plan is equity. We want to make sure every story and every voice truly counts. We will focus on our most vulnerable, historically disinvested neighborhoods by leveraging new and existing initiatives and funding sources to help improve conditions where the most severe racial inequities exist. We will address the many facets of racial inequity across the city as well as class, disability, and age discrimination. We will aim to institutionalize issues of equity into the core workings of city government planning and implementation. Not only will this improve improve sustainable land use, biodiversity, energy efficiency, resiliency, and the overall economic climate of the city, it’s also simply the right thing to do.

This is your opportunity to share with the City what you love and don’t love about your community. Please take the survey — you don’t have to give them your name or other contact information, unless you want to. It’s important that the City hears your voice and your concerns.

Homeowners Property Tax Credit Deadline: September 1

Maryland residents, the Homeowners Property Tax Credit deadline of September 1 is fast approaching — you may be eligible to save on your property taxes, but you must file every year to get the credit! The credit is based on household income, so please go here to view the eligibility criteria and form you’ll need to apply.

 

Project C.O.R.E Community Meeting June 29

Please attend this important meeting regarding vacants and the implementation of Project C.O.R.E — the city/state partnership to demolish vacant homes.

June 29, 6:00-8:00 PM

Edmondson-Westside High School, 501 N Athol Avenue, 21229

Let the city know where you think we need more demolition, stabilization, or other strategies to address the city’s 30,000 vacant homes!

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Bandit Signs: The New Blockbusting

“I wish they wouldn’t post those here, they make our neighborhood look trashy.”

"WE BUY HOUSES" signs ripped down after a walk. I hear this a lot about bandit signs — those “WE BUY HOUSES” signs that pop up like toadstools after a storm. And yes, they do make a neighborhood look trashy. But even worse — they’re the new tool for blockbusting. For devaluing property — maybe your property. (Hint: It’s a scam.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, blockbusters (usually realtors or “investor” types) would go into neighborhoods to intentionally destabilize real estate prices, in order to snap up properties on the cheap, by “warning” white families that “blacks are moving in next door”. The white family (along with their neighbors, who the “investor” approached earlier) would then flee to the suburbs, but not before selling their property at a ridiculously low price. The investor or realtor would then turn around and sell the property to a black family under a ridiculously rigged “rent to own” scheme, which ultimately led to the financial downfall of many black families in once-prosperous neighborhoods. Many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods in West and East Baltimore are still feeling the effects today, through abandonment, concentrated poverty, subprime lending scams, and sub-standard rental housing. In the late 1960s, most predatory real estate practices were outlawed under the Fair Housing Act, yet many still remain. With new tactics, steering, blockbusting and redlining are alive and well in Baltimore City.

With these signs, shady investors are able to create a culture of urgency and fear in a neighborhood by indicating this is a neighborhood where people are looking to leave…and leave quickly. They’re not a hard sell — they’re usually posted in the middle of the night, quietly. The people who post these signs prey on residents who need money. They prey on residents’ emotions and feelings about their neighborhood. Worse, these signs start to chip away at a neighborhood’s sense of community. Nobody wants to live where they presume a mass exodus is about to take place. These signs are a cheap attempt to divide and conquer. To pit neighbor against neighbor in a blockbusting scheme, 2016 style.

These signs are also illegal. However, the fines are so negligible (and of course so rarely levied that the law is laughable), the investor chalks them up to a business deduction and continues to hang them. My advice? Rip them down. Every time you see one of these signs, rip it off the light pole, off the door of a blighted vacant. Throw them into the trash, and send a message to these people that our neighborhoods are not to be preyed upon. Don’t be a victim to this scam, and don’t allow your neighborhood — your neighbors — to be devalued by these people. Realizing your true worth is the first step towards strengthening your community.

 

Maryland Renters’ Tax Credit: Deadline September 1

The Renters’ Tax Credit is currently only available to low-income and/or senior renters.  However, our legislators did do something positive on this front during this year’s legislative session — the credit has been increased from $750 to $1000. HB340 was signed into law by Governor Hogan in May.

If you think you might qualify for the credit, please go here to download the form and review the current income requirements. The application deadline is September 1, but you can file at any time before then.

Expanding this credit to allow moderate-income renters to apply would provide relief to those who are struggling with rising rents and paying more than 30% of their net monthly income towards housing. This is something we’ll be fighting for in future legislative sessions.