By Giacomo Bologna The Baltimore Sun
Bree Jones walked into a three-story rowhouse in Harlem Park, stepping on bare wooden boards and past exposed joists — the bones of a rebuilt house — and felt proud.
It doesn’t look like much now. But a year ago, it was rubble and trash inside a vacant shell. In two months, a couple plans to move into the finished house, helping to repopulate this West Baltimore neighborhood.
“It’s a labor of love,” Jones said. “It’s taken everything. Every ounce of my brainpower, my willpower over the last two years.”
That’s partly because Jones, who runs the nonprofit development firm Parity, had to do something many municipalities across the country already do for developers: acquiring and bundling vacant properties, a process Jones calls “land banking.”
Land banks are typically quasi-governmental agencies that acquire property, clear title issues, consolidate parcels into larger properties, then put these properties into the hands of qualified developers like Jones, sometimes for as little as $1.
Former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon wanted to create a Baltimore land bank in 2009, but she was rebuffed by City Council members concerned about transparency and its financial feasibility. Now, Democratic Councilwoman Odette Ramos is preparing to revive the debate by filing legislation that would create a land bank.
Jones said she tried to land-bank on her own, but it’s been a long and costly struggle. It meant tracking down property owners, investigating LLCs, hiring attorneys, outbidding other investors at auction and filing a deluge of paperwork. After two years, Parity only owns or controls about half the block — and has been bleeding money on its properties there.
“If the question is, ‘Do we need a land bank?’ The answer is, unequivocally, ‘Yes,’” Jones said.
There are about 250 land banks across the country, mostly in cities with lots of blight and relatively weak real estate markets, according to Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
“This is not new. This is not highly innovative and experimental. This is pretty well trodden,” Theodos said. “There’s [a] lot of cities that have figured out how to do this.”
It’s essentially a way that local governments can intervene in the housing market and turn their most blighted blocks into opportunities, he said.
“The logic is really just specialization,” Theodos said. “You can give that entity some unique legal powers and help them get properties back in productive use.”
There are tens of thousands of vacant homes and empty lots in Baltimore, and the city owns only a fraction of them. But in the coming years, Baltimore is expected to take possession of thousands of these properties — including dozens or even hundreds of entire blocks — through a new judicial tool called “in rem foreclosure.”
This means the city will have to figure out what to do with all that land.
“One of the big things people ask me all the time is, ‘This is great. What happens when we amass all these properties?’” Ramos said. “I think we’re all in agreement around the block-by-block strategy. … The issue is: How do we make sure that property disposition is done in a community-driven way, but also efficient and effective?”
For Ramos, the answer is a land bank.
So far, the city’s housing department has taken on the role of acquiring property. Lawyers from the Department of Housing and Community Development were in court Wednesday for foreclosure suits that will put a block of empty lots in East Baltimore under city control.
While Ramos considers herself a “huge cheerleader” of that agency and lauded the work of Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy, she believes a separate land bank would be much more effective at acquiring, assembling and disposing of such land.
Under Ramos’ plan, Kennedy would have a seat on the land bank’s board, but Ramos said it makes more sense for the housing department to focus on its other roles, such as reforming the permitting office, assisting residents with home repairs and ramping up code enforcement.
How to fund the land bank and whether it eventually could divert resources from the housing department is up in the air.
Kennedy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“I fully admit that we will need a bunch of money for this entity,” Ramos said. “So we’re trying to figure out the best way to make sure that happens.”
Kim Graziani, a land bank expert who advises the Center for Community Progress, a Washington-based nonprofit working to address vacant housing, said she has assisted and consulted on most of the land banks operating in the U.S. She’s also a former Baltimore resident.
One of the biggest benefits of a separate land bank is it can operate with much less bureaucracy and more flexibility, potentially creating huge savings for developers, Graziani said.
“If I get my property from a land bank, and use their legal powers to assemble properties and make a transfer to me for let’s say, $1 or $1,000, I can save so much money and actually apply that to the development of the property versus site assembly,” she said.
Graziani called the land bank a “tool that can help address the massive scale of vacancy and disinvestment in Baltimore,” but only if it operates transparently and in coordination with city leadership as well as residents.
“It can’t be the only tool,” she said. “It’s got to be one more tool in the toolbox that Baltimore uses.”
For some advocates, there are historical concerns about letting the city and its housing department acquire and dispose of thousands of city properties.
“We don’t trust DHCD,” Nneka N’Namdi said of the housing department. “Especially when it comes to racial justice.”
N’Namdi, the founder of Fight Blight Bmore, spoke to The Baltimore Sun alongside John Kern, who works at Stop Oppressive Seizures. Both N’Namdi’s and Kern’s work focuses on keeping legacy residents in their homes, especially longtime Black residents. They were part of a group of advocates consulted by Ramos on her forthcoming land bank legislation.
Like Ramos, they lauded Kennedy, but said she runs the housing department of a city that for decades has pushed vulnerable residents out of Baltimore through eminent domain, urban renewal projects and its annual tax sale.
“You can’t divorce yourself from that (history) with one commissioner who’s focused on equity,” N’Namdi said. “That’s not how that works.”
To N’Namdi and Kern, Kennedy is helming a massive ship on the ocean. She is steering that ship in the right direction, but it will take years to turn it around. In the meantime, they would like to dispatch a much smaller, nimbler boat — a land bank.
Kern said this is an opportunity to create an entity that works with communities to rebuild neighborhoods and repair historical damages.
“Morally — and really symbolically — what the land (bank) is, is a community-led and resident-initiated redevelopment process,” Kern said.