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.

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