Baltimore has a vacant housing crisis. Could a land bank help solve it?
Published in Home and Consumer News
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.”
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