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'Ghost homes' haunt Baltimore's housing market. City officials think they have a creative solution

Giacomo Bologna, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Business News

“We need to come up with some kind of creative solution that allows people to buy these properties and fix them up,” he said.

Baltimore officials think they already have that creative solution. It’s called “in rem foreclosure.”

A typical foreclosure means a lawsuit against a person who has fallen behind on mortgage payments or other debts, though that person can give up the property to satisfy the debt. “In rem” is a Latin phrase meaning “against a thing.” In rem foreclosure allows the city to essentially sue a property. It’s a simpler process with less paperwork.

It currently takes years for the city to take ownership of a property that has delinquent tax and water bills. The house typically must cycle through Baltimore’s tax sale process. In rem foreclosure could put a home in the city’s hands in as little as four months, according to a lawyer for the city’s housing commission.

Odette Ramos advocated for a 2019 state law that allowed in rem foreclosure when she was the executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. Recently, she’s helped nudge the idea into a reality as a Baltimore City Council member, calling it a game-changer for the city.

“We should’ve been doing this a long time ago. But the moment is now,” Ramos said. “People shouldn’t have to live next to vacant properties anymore.”

 

Two researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, Mary Miller and Mac McComas, recently published a paper on the cost of vacant homes to the city. Baltimore has tagged about 15,000 homes as vacant and unsafe for habitation. Miller and McComas found that the city spends at least $100 million annually on vacant homes for 911 calls, outreach to squatters, cleaning and boarding up properties, mowing, rat control and much more. They estimated that if those homes were inhabited, they would add $110 million annually to city coffers from property taxes, income taxes and bills for water and sewer service.

That means if Baltimore could solve its vacant housing crisis, it would add roughly $210 million to the city’s coffers every year.

As part of their research, Miller and McComas tried to determine how many owners of vacant homes were paying their property tax bills.

“The numbers are really confounding and they’re hard to get,” Miller said. “We tried to get an actual number from the city and could not.”

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