Baltimore housing officials are touting a new initiative that would fight blight and try to get rid of the city's approximately 30,000 vacant properties.
The Land Bank Authority, if established, would be a nonprofit, quasi-governmental entity that would help the city acquire, manage and dispose of vacants, and its advocates say it would help streamline the way the city currently disposes of blighted houses and lots: through the city's spending panel, the Board of Estimates.
All properties acquired by the land bank would be listed in an online database, and sales of what Assistant Housing Commissioner Julie Day called "rudimentary" transactions would no longer require the Board of Estimates' approval.
The panel would still have to sign off on large-scale projects that require competitive bidding on multiple properties, as well as on property deals that are part of urban renewal ordinances.
Establishing the land bank would require changing the city code, which says that all city transactions of $5,000 or more must go before the BOE, the city's spending panel. On Monday, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano urged the city council to support the plan, noting that other jurisdictions, including Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis and Genesee County, Mich., have produced promising results with land banks.
"The bottom line is, despite good faith and many hard efforts by a lot of people in this city, we have not been able to overcome the vacant property challenge, which in Baltimore is very large," he said Tuesday.
At a city council luncheon Monday, embattled Mayor Sheila Dixon, who last week was indicted on 12 criminal counts including theft and perjury, spoke directly to the media in favor of the land bank plan, emphasizing that she would not be distracted from city business by the charges against her.
"I'm very passionate about this," she said. "If you want to write about something, write about this. ... This can help us mitigate, in some neighborhoods, blight that has been here for 30 years in some cases. "
There are about 17,000 vacant houses and 13,000 vacant lots in Baltimore City, according to housing department officials, and the city owns about 10,000 total vacant properties. Of the city-owned vacants, 40 percent are houses. Last year, the city sold 256 vacant lots and structures, and over the last five years, has sold about 250 properties through the SCOPE - Selling City-Owned Properties Efficiently - anti-blight initiative.
"Developers say, 'Now, it takes too long [to buy city-owned vacants],'" said Day, of the housing department. "How do we meet their needs, time-wise, while assuring that communities receive adequate notice?"
Day said the current process, which requires Board of Estimates approval and in many cases U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approval, can add six to eight weeks to the length of many transactions. In the meantime, she said, buyers often back off or lose their financing.
"If you're doing a pro forma that depends on market conditions that are changing as dramatically and quickly as they are now, then the sooner you complete the deal, the more certainty there is," she said.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke expressed some concerns that the plan would, in effect, take the city council out of the decision-making process when it comes to selling city-owned land.
"It's a left-hand, right-hand situation," she said. "The land bank will be independent, but it will be run by appointees of the mayor, so in other words, it's an arm of city government," she said. "For example, if the city owns a piece of property and hands it over to the land bank, and then the land bank goes ahead and sells it, we never got a chance to approve the sale in the first place. Why is that important? Because we know pieces of property and ... what they mean to communities. "
Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of REALTORS, helps administer the city's SCOPE project. He said that properties sold by the city under SCOPE can sometimes take three to five months between contract acceptance and settlement.
"The hope is with the land bank that it will shave at least a couple of months off that time," he said Tuesday. "The idea is to narrow the number of people who have to be involved in these transactions and have rules and procedures that allow these things to move along at a quicker pace. "
If passed, he said, the city council ought to make sure the bill is not weighed down by bureaucratic controls.
"The more hands on the stirrer of the pot make it more difficult to coordinate," he said. "If the process is layered with a lot of additional steps and bureaucratic oversight, [a land bank] could be a wash - it could end up not helping at all. "
Copyright 2009 Dolan Media Newswires