'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

Instead, they relied on information from a 2016 study and were able to estimate that roughly 65% of vacant homes were current on their property taxes, which surprised Miller.

“I went into this thinking, ‘Well, why would anyone be paying property taxes on vacant housing?’” she said. “But actually, a lot of houses have taxes being paid.”

That leaves about a third of Baltimore’s vacant homes racking up unpaid property taxes, meaning at least about 5,000 or so properties would qualify as ghost homes.

Seema Iyer, the former director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, has been studying the city’s communities and its vacancy problem for years.

In a relatively strong neighborhood where a house becomes vacant, in rem foreclosure probably won’t be that useful because the homes are probably worth more than whatever debts have accumulated, Iyer said. But there are a handful of Baltimore neighborhoods where a fifth or more of homes are vacant and property values are low, Iyer said. It doesn’t make financial sense for a developer to buy one of those homes if it has tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to the title.

“That’s exactly where in rem [foreclosure] is going to help because there’s no market there,” Iyer said.

In rem foreclosure alone won’t transform a neighborhood, Iyer said, but she described it as another tool in the city’s toolbox.

Joe Kirchner, an attorney at the Department of Housing and Community Development, is figuring out how best to wield that tool.


“This opens up the whole universe of properties where the liens exceed the value in a particular target area,” Kirchner said. “Once the city holds title, we can sell it to developers or assemble a park or things like that.”

The city owns less than a tenth of homes identified as vacant and abandoned, but Kirchner said that share is about to go up.

Kirchner told The Baltimore Sun in October that there were four attorneys filing foreclosure cases for the city, with another attorney scheduled to start at the end of October. There are plans to add four more foreclosure attorneys and two attorneys who specialize in property titles, plus paralegals and a new case management system.

The housing commission filed its first eight cases in late summer, Kirchner said, and attorneys are in the process of filing dozens more. They’re currently looking at vacant homes in what the city has designated “Impact Investment Areas,” areas that mostly include neighborhoods east and west of downtown as well as Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore. These are low-income areas that the city believes are primed for transformation.

Kirchner said the housing commission already has identified more than 500 homes for in rem foreclosure in those areas and expects to have a list of 1,000 addresses by the end of the year.

“Once we have all the attorneys on board, and once we have this system up and running, I think we’ll be ready to charge ahead in 2023,” Kirchner said.

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