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.

Dear Mr. Plank

I read with interest the latest missive in the Baltimore Business Journal about your grand plans for the area around Port Covington. While I love the idea of someone finally redeveloping that area, since it’s been an eyesore for years, even before the Sam’s Club bolted for the hinterlands, something didn’t sit well with me. The part about how the community will benefit from your new development:

“No, the community will benefit and there should be a quid pro quo on both sides of it and we should all contribute.”

So here’s the thing, Mr. Plank, yes — the community that sits adjacent to your planned development — Locust Point — will probably benefit. They’ll have even more shops and restaurants, shiny new buildings to look at, and an overall jubilant sense (for the 10,000th time) that Baltimore is indeed “turning around”. Property values might even increase so many homeowners won’t be underwater anymore, so they can finally sell.

But unfortunately, those taxpayers aren’t the only ones contributing their tax dollars towards your $107 million TIF, or other public financing I’m sure the City Council is waiting with bated breath to hand over to you. Taxpayers all over the city just gave Michael Beatty $140 million to build Harbor Point, despite there being many signs indicating that it shouldn’t happen. And now you’re next in line, wanting taxpayers to help you — a man who, by all accounts, is a successful business man. (I’m a huge fan of Sagamore’s racehorses, by the way. Magnificent steeds, they are.) So I’m sure, as a successful business man, you understand the idea of being in the black vs being in the red. Let me enlighten you as to who you’re asking to “help” with your new development.

The majority of Baltimore City residents, 58% to be exact, earn less than $50,000 a year. You probably spend more than that every year on clothes and shoes. I probably would if I were you, no harm no foul. But to those folks, $50,000 doesn’t go very far. A lot of them have kids, and kids are expensive. They require things like food, and as a mom, I can tell you with 100% certainty that having a teenager in the house means you’re having to cash in Granny’s costume bling just to keep the kid in clothes and food. Plus, you know, there’s BGE and rent — rent that most people in Baltimore can’t pay without dipping into the rainy day fund, if they even have a rainy day fund — my guess is many people do not. And according to a study released late last year, 50% of Baltimore’s residents cannot afford market-rate rent — they’re paying over 30% of their net monthly income just to keep a roof over their heads.

Many of these folks have jobs, and work really hard — yet they’re just not making it. They’re in the red, or they soon will be. They simply can’t afford to help you, especially when their communities will not benefit from their largesse — most of the people who email me live in places like Park Heights, Pigtown, McElderry Park, Harlem Park, and other neighborhoods the City would rather sweep under the carpet. They don’t benefit from large development projects in Locust Point or Harbor Point, or anywhere, really. They don’t benefit directly, nor indirectly. Most of the folks I hear from who live in therse neighborhoods, frankly, have no idea where their tax money goes. The City cries broke and wants to close fire companies, yet here we are — being asked, yet again, to help finance a development that will only benefit a small part of our city.

Mr. Plank, what would you say if you were us? What would you tell a single mom in Harlem Park whose home (one that she bought, mind you) is sandwiched between two vacants, and she can’t sleep at night because she’s scared vagrants will burn the block down after breaking into the vacants? How much should she “help” with, out of her $28,000 annual salary? Or the elderly lady in Park Heights whose block along Reisterstown Road is more vacant than occupied — she lives on Social Security and a small pension, since retiring from the City school system as a teacher. She and her husband bought their home back in the 1960s, right around the year I was born. They paid about $8,000 for their home — and it’s not worth much more than that now. How much “help” should she give, and how would you explain your request in a way that wouldn’t make her lose her religion?

Don’t think I’m against this development, because I’m not. I think it’s a great idea, and that parcel of land has been an eyesore since the first knucklehead came along with a grand scheme of putting in a shopping center that never materialized. But as a taxpayer, as a resident, and as a mom — I’ll say the same thing to you that I would say to my 14 year old son when he asks for a pair of Under Armour shoes:  “Sorry, kiddo, it’s not in the budget.” We’ve had to make do with less in Baltimore City for so long — it’s time developers and our government do the same.

More on Low Wages and the High Cost of Housing in Baltimore

MIT has a wonderful online resource that calculates a living wage vs. poverty wages, and it reinforces the data I posted in my previous post on salaries and the high cost of living in Baltimore City.

Some highlights, assuming a household of one adult and one child:

Only nine of the typical wage job categories offer a living wage — meaning, people who earn this salary should be able to afford housing, food, and utilities without going into debt every month.

The other thirteen categories would lead a single-parent household into financial difficulty, and they might need to rely on government assistance to make ends meet.

A one adult, one child household needs to earn a minimum of $47,595 (or almost $23 an hour) before taxes to afford to live in Baltimore City, unassisted.

What Can You Do Now?

Contact your City Council representative and tell them Baltimore residents need affordable housing — our working families deserve better, and they need to make this a priority over the wishes of campaign contributors.

The Other Side of the Affordable Housing Coin: Jobs and Wages

Housing affordability, particularly for median income workers, has become a much-talked about topic of late. Rising rents have forced a large segment of city residents to spend well over 30% of their net monthly income on shelter costs, which can lead to severe financial trauma later on. One of the reasons why city residents are struggling — low city salaries. The urban ideal is to live and work in the same place — however, to do so in Baltimore City is becoming less cost-effective. Even when you factor in transportation costs, depending on your chosen profession, working in DC, and even working in some of the neighboring counties might be more lucrative. For example, if you are an accountant, the median hourly wage in Baltimore City is $30.00. In Baltimore County, that rises to $34.50, in Anne Arundel County, it’s about the same as Baltimore County, and in Howard County, it’s $33.25. My friend Steve, who is an experienced accountant and works in Howard County, earns roughly $41.00 an hour. That’s more than he would earn, on average, in Baltimore City, even for an accountant with the same amount of responsibility and experience.

However, not many in Baltimore City are earning $41.00 an hour, or even $30.00 an hour. In fact, 58% of Baltimore City residents earn $49,999 per year or less, with the majority of those people earning less than $25,000 a year. The fair market rent (FMR) set by HUD, for a two-bedroom home or apartment in Baltimore City of approximately $1250 is well out of reach for most, if not all, of those residents. Yet, despite the lower salaries and despite the rising rents, we’re not making affordable housing for working families a priority, nor are we creating the jobs that can lead to higher salaries for new and existing workers.

When you look at the breakdown of available jobs and education level of residents, it becomes clear which industries need to expand:

Only 27% of Baltimore City residents age 25 and older have a college degree. This means a severe shortage of good-paying steady jobs for the vast majority of city residents. Historically, skilled trades and manufacturing jobs led to greater financial security, homeownership, and retirement with decent pensions/retirement accounts, particularly for those who had no college education. In Baltimore City, however, those jobs are in short supply:

Only 3.6 percent of workers are employed in manufacturing, and only 2.9 percent are employed in construction. The numbers still remain low, even if you add in trade, transportation, and utilities, at 11.7 percent of workers. Compare that to Batltimore County, where the numbers rise to 6.1 percent in construction, 4.5 percent in manufacturing, and 18.2 percent in trade, transportation, and utilities. The numbers in Anne Arundel and Howard Counties are also higher than Baltimore City.

What’s the Solution?

With the number of tax credits given to developers to build luxury apartments downtown, there should be equal attention paid, along with tax credits given to developers to revamp much of our vacant housing stock, especially on the city’s east and west sides, where many low- to moderate-wage workers already live. We also need to incentivize industry — manufacturing, skilled trades and other construction jobs, and utilities. Tax credits for building new facilities, or reusing existing facilities are a must. Better jobs, combined with affordable housing is what’s needed for a stronger, safer city.

Sources: US Census 2009-2013, Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, US Department of Housing and Urban Development

Baltimore City Needs a Staffed DPW Emergency Number

The number of emails I’ve received lately about water emergencies has reached a critical mass — including a text this morning from a neighbor whose home was in danger of being flooded because of a burst pipe in the street. (Thankfully, the fire department was able to take care of that, but I hate to think what could have happened!)

One man who emailed me recently told a common story — pipes in a vacant home had burst, causing a flood in the entire row of adjoining homes. I was able to email someone at Housing who responded quickly, and an inspector was dispatched the next morning. Unfortunately, it appears many of the homes, including the one belonging to the homeowner who emailed me, may have to be condemned, due to weakened foundations and water damage.

What amazes me about all of this is the fact that Baltimore City has no water emergency number — despite the number of water emergencies that occur, seemingly every day, across the city, whether it’s winter or not. Because of Baltimore’s aging infrastructure, and the lack of attention that’s been paid to it until recent years, it’s no wonder we have so many emergencies — however, the city’s website directs residents to call 311 or fill out an online 311 complaint, which will be answered…shortly. Whatever that means.

Anne Arundel and Howard County have water emergency phone numbers, because an emergency needs immediate attention — not attention days later. Sorry, Baltimore County, since your water is provided by Baltimore City, you’re stuck calling our DPW. While I sympathize with the folks who work for DPW in all sorts of weather, the powers that be, from the safety and warmth of their offices, should consider the fact that we need an emergency number, one that is actually staffed with a live person who can then dispatch an emergency crew immediately. Property owners shouldn’t have to face condemnation, loss of homeowner’s insurance, and other ills, simply because our government doesn’t have the foresight to think about what should happen in an emergency.

Contact your City Council representative, and tell them you’re tired of bandaids, you demand real solutions to the problems residents face. Isn’t your water bill high enough without having to pay for a flood?

Mapping Fraudulent Home Purchases

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Alberic Okou Agodio of Bethesda, MD on multiple charges of wire fraud and identity theft, arising from a $3.9 million mortgage scheme where he and his co-conspirators purchased homes in Baltimore City using false information on mortgage applications, in exchange for kickbacks on each sale. The indictment was recently unsealed, and you can download and read all 45 pages here or read an article Baltimore Brew published this morning.

House flipper Kevin Campbell, under the guise of his shell company E&W Realty, LLC, also participated in the scheme, facilitating the sale of the homes to the straw buyers. All of the homes purchased in this scheme are currently in foreclosure, or soon will be, according to this FBI press release.

Map of homes purchased using straw buyers and fraudulent mortgages
Map of homes purchased using straw buyers and fraudulent mortgages

This is a map of most of the homes purchased using the scam — some were named in the indictment, and some were not (I was able to find 24 of the approximately 36 homes purchased with fraudulent mortgages). As you can see, most of these homes are located in West Baltimore, in zip codes 21217, 21223, and 21215 — three of the most blighted zip codes in the city. They’re also three of the poorest zip codes in the city. Scammers and slumlords tend to prey on poor neighborhoods, where they think their negligence and dishonest behavior will go unnoticed. West Baltimore continues to decline, as the City focuses its efforts on areas of the city like the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, and Downtown — sadly, very few organizations or elected officials are doing much to help the residents of these West Baltimore neighborhoods. Let’s change that.






Homestead Tax Credit: Not for Rentals

The State of Maryland has a tax credit that’s available to homeowners, to offset the high property taxes — this credit is for owner-occupied dwellings only, and not to be used for rental properties where the homeowner does not reside.

If you move away, and wish to rent out your property instead of selling it, you must contact your local assessment office and notify them of the change in occupancy status. In Baltimore City, the contact information is as follows:

Baltimore City Assessments
Wm D. Schaefer Tower
6 Saint Paul St., 11th Floor
Baltimore, Maryland 21202-1608
Hours: 8:00 to 5:00
(410) 767-8250
FAX (410) 333-4626

For other Maryland municipalties, you can download this PDF.

The penalty for wrongfully claiming the Homestead Tax Credit can include the following, under Section 9-105 Tax-Property Article of the Maryland Annotated Code:

(1) A person who has been granted a property tax credit under this section and is subsequently found to not qualify for the credit by the Department shall be assessed all State, county, and municipal corporation property tax otherwise due for each taxable year the person did not qualify to receive the credit.

(2) (i) If a person is found by the Department to have willfully misrepresented facts regarding qualification for the property tax credit under this section, the person shall be assessed a penalty equal to 25% of the amount of the property tax credit received during each taxable year for which the person did not qualify.

(ii) The amount of the penalty shall be separately itemized on the person’s property tax bill and constitutes a lien on the property until:

1. payment of the penalty in full; or

2. if the property is sold in an action to foreclose on a mortgage or deed of trust:

A. a copy of the court order ratifying the foreclosure sale is provided to the supervisor of assessments for the county in which the residential property is located; or

B. an instrument of writing transferring the property is recorded in the land records of the county in which the property is located.

Mapping is on Hiatus

Unfortunately, Google has discontinued their enterprise-level Maps Engine, so our mapping project has hit a bit of a snafu. Luckily, I was able to download all of the data before everything went away, so the mapping project will resume as soon as we’ve established an account with another map provider.

I chose BatchGeo as the new map provider, and will be recreating the maps as soon as the account is ready to go! The current maps, found under the “Mapping” tab in the menu bar, still exist as of today — the links will be changed when the new account is up and running.

Sorry for the inconvenience!

2015 Historic Preservation Awards Nominations

Baltimore Heritage, a group I love and support, is holding their call for nominations again, for the 2015 Historic Preservation Awards.

Historic preservation, particularly in a city like Baltimore that is experiencing a slight…identity crisis, shall we say…is incredibly important. When we fail to preserve our past, we lose what made us great — we lose that part of us that has memories and roots, and we drift without a mooring.

One of the remaining buildings at the Alma Manufacturing site.
One of the remaining buildings at the Alma Manufacturing site.

Buildings like the Eigenbrot Brewery, Alma Manufacturing, and the steel mills — they serve as symbols of a more prosperous Baltimore. A Baltimore I believe we should, and can, strive for again.

If you know of a historic preservation project that deserves special recognition, nominate it here. You have until Friday, March 6.