Baltimore coalition launches effort to campaign for land bank to acquire vacant properties
By Giacomo Bologna
Iya Kenya MahaliyaDara loves her Northwest Baltimore home, but she’s getting tired of her neighbors.
For the past seven years the 48-year-old Baltimore native has lived in a Park Heights rowhome she inherited from her mother. Next door is a vacant home where rats, mice, roaches, nests of hornets, feral cats and a family of raccoons live.
MahaliyaDara said she has tried contacting the owner — an LLC based in College Park that hasn’t been in good standing with the state since 2007 — and gotten no response. She thinks it’s time for the city to act.
A coalition of housing advocates gathered Tuesday morning outside her home to launch a campaign for a Baltimore land bank.
A land bank is a quasi-governmental agency specifically tasked with acquiring blighted properties, clearing their debts, assembling lots and selling them to qualified developers. Advocates believe it could be a powerful tool in rebuilding blocks like MahaliyaDara’s, where most of the rowhomes have boarded-up windows, caved-in roofs and rotting facades.
“I’m ready for our city’s first land bank,” MahaliyaDara told the dozens of supporters.
The city has identified about 14,000 homes in Baltimore as vacant and abandoned, but as the population of Baltimore continues to decrease developers and advocates believe the true number of vacant properties is much higher. The homes are often crime magnets and fire hazards.
“What does it mean for a child to walk past 29 vacant properties on their way to school?” said Nneka N’Namdi, founder of Fight Blight Bmore. “It means we as a community, we as a city, have actually failed them because we are creating conditions that are dangerous and traumatic to children.”
City Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced legislation in March that would authorize the city to create a land bank, but there has yet to be a hearing on her bill. More than 200 cities across the country have established land banks.
They’re popular in postindustrial cities that have experienced population loss. Baltimore leaders nixed plans for a land bank in 2009 after concerns about transparency and financial feasibility.
Ideally, when a home becomes vacant and falls into disrepair, an individual or a company would buy the home, fix it up and either move in or sell it.
But in certain neighborhoods of Baltimore the abundance of blighted properties has broken this cycle.
It often costs more to rehabilitate an abandoned home in Baltimore than that home’s eventual market value. That means a developer can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire and rebuild a vacant home, then find that no one is willing to spend that much to buy it.
Tia Richards, a developer in Baltimore, spoke at Tuesday’s event and said there are local developers like her who want to rebuild neighborhoods with homeownership opportunities, but the numbers don’t work out.
“I have developers calling me because they’re in a spot where they can’t sell their homes. They have top-of-the-line products,” Richards said. “But because there’s vacants predominantly controlling the block, no one wants to live there.”
Rather than fixing and flipping more homes, these developers are often stuck as landlords, Richards said, leading some to avoid entire neighborhoods if there are too many vacants.