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Once Again, Baltimore Hopes to Fight Blight With $1 Homes

In the 1970s, the city created a new generation of homesteaders by practically giving away vacant homes. Now, the idea has been revitalized by a city councilor. But not everyone is convinced it will work.

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A decadeslong decrease in population has left Baltimore with thousands of vacant homes. (David Kidd/Governing)
The 900 block of Calhoun Street in Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood is roughly half of what it used to be. Once a historically upper middle-class Black community, the area was ravaged by urban renewal.

On the southwest end of the block, the only remaining building is a little corner shop — Raven Champion Grocery Store — painted purple in honor of the hometown football team. A loose pitbull lolls in the neighboring field of brown late winter grass. Many of the remaining rowhouses sit forlorn and empty.

Dave Braxton is from West Baltimore and, in a way, he’s used to seeing his hometown scarred by vacancy. But there’s another sense in which he’s never really used to it.

“You watch for decades and decades and, at some point, expect that we'll get it together,” says Braxton, who is 39, and owns a small real estate company. “But years go by and it's still nothing. It reverse engineers your motivation to a certain degree. It reverse engineers your hope.”

Braxton is standing on this block of Harlem Park because, as he drove by, he recognized City Council President Nick Mosby. He isn’t the first to stop and say hello. Mosby is a known quantity in West Baltimore, where he served as a city councilmember and a state representative before winning his current office in 2020. He is also married to the state’s attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby (who is currently under federal indictment, although the council president is not).

In recent months, Mosby has put forward a headline-catching proposal inspired by a well-remembered program from the 1970s, where Baltimore sold vacant houses for $1 to homesteaders if they fixed them up. Mosby made his pitch last year, suggesting that about a third of Baltimore’s funds from the American Rescue Plan Act be devoted to his $1 house proposal, a supporting program to fund home repairs, and a bill to help seniors struggling with reverse mortgages.

Together he argues these policies, and a package of fees on derelict property owners, would allow Baltimore to target the roughly 15,000 officially vacant buildings that have been one of its most longstanding challenges. Since he introduced his package, the issue rose to the top of the city’s agenda in the wake of the death of three firefighters fighting a blaze in a vacant rowhouse.

“Think about what the normalization of this level of vacancy does to young folks and their vision of where they're from,” says Mosby. “This was created through bigotry. This was created through lack of resources, funding and attention. It sits at the core of Baltimore’s issues.”
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Council President Nick Mosby hopes to facilitate home ownership by offering city-owned vacants to neighborhood residents for $1.
(David KIDD/Governing)
Mosby’s $1 house proposal is extremely different from its 1970s namesake. The original project sold homes in concentrated blocks the city had condemned for urban renewal projects that never came to fruition. The initiative was backed by a local bond and federal loans, while the city supplied funds to plant trees, pave the streetscape and fix lighting in these long-neglected areas. Many of the recipients were of at least middle-class background and lived in other homes they owned or rented while they repaired their $1 rowhouses.

The current proposal, by contrast, is specifically targeted toward people like Braxton, longtime residents of Baltimore who have spent their lives in the most-neglected neighborhoods where the city owns thousands of scattered site vacant homes. Home repair grants worth $50,000 would be available to help with renovations, but recipients would have to be pre-approved for a construction loan without the same level of government backing available in the 1970s. The city would basically lease the homes for two years to recipients, with preference for families making less than 80 percent of area median income and longtime residents of Baltimore, or those (like Braxton) who lived in the city for much of their lives but have since moved.

Mosby argues that the old $1 house program, and many of the city’s other efforts to fix up vacant properties, have been targeted toward “developers and speculators.” He says no one has tried to address blight like this before.

“There are tons of people who live in or are from these communities who would love to own,” says Mosby. “If you talk to people in East and West Baltimore, that’s where they want to stay. They want to put down roots in the community they are from. That's who this program is for.”

Mosby’s pitch sounds convincing. Who could argue with a big, ambitious plan to fight vacancy by empowering residents who are already here?

Plenty of people, it turns out. Mosby’s proposal has been criticized by many housing experts and advocacy organizations from the beginning, as they fear it will freight lower-income Baltimoreans with expensive repair projects that end with homes that aren’t worth what they put into them. For the amount occupied homes sell for in these neighborhoods, an argument goes, it would be easier and more affordable to just buy one of those.

“It's not a good idea,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress. “It underestimates the extent to which a program like this can actually do harm to the would-be target population. For people to succeed as a homesteader, you've got to have a significant amount of discretionary income that you can invest in a project. Which means you got to have some wealth to begin with.”

Mosby tried to address these concerns by increasing the size of repair grants from $25,000 to $50,000. At the beginning of March, he brought his package up for a vote where it stalled 7 to 7. The one absent councilmember, Ryan Dorsey, has been a critic of the bill and is a probable no vote.
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Since Baltimore’s vacants are in such poor condition, critics contend that the cost of renovations would be greater than a finished home’s appraised value.
(David Kidd/Governing)
The council president is not giving up. He’s been canvassing members of the council and is gearing up for another push. That’s a testament to both Mosby’s ambition and the enduring popularity of the $1 house idea. Even though the original program only saved a few hundred homes, community organizers for housing advocacy in the city say it comes up almost every day if they are knocking on doors in the neighborhoods. The original program is so strongly situated in Baltimore’s collective memory, it was only a matter of time until someone tried to revive it.

Baltimore’s Post-Industrial Change

Vacant housing has dogged Baltimore for at least half a century. The city population peaked at almost 950,000 in 1950 and declined every decade since; it lost one third of its white population between 1950 and 1970. The most recent census showed it dipping below 586,000. There are too many houses for too few people, especially in the lower-income corners of town where real estate development and in-migration are rarities.

The original $1 house program emerged in the decade where the city saw its sharpest population decline, losing almost 120,000 people. The 1970s marked the true demarcation point between Baltimore’s past and its post-industrial present. The now-famous Inner Harbor development, seen as a national model for central city revitalization for leisure, was still under construction. Industrial workers were still a prominent feature of this area south of downtown, and tourists an unimaginable presence.

Back then, Baltimore owned several clutches of vacant rowhomes in areas the city had seized for urban renewal efforts. But the projects never got off the ground, leaving blocks of empty houses owned by the city. Before “gentrification” entered the popular lexicon, the city saw an opportunity to get more middle-class people to move back to town, do the work of fixing up the homes and transform properties dragging on the tax rolls.

“It got a lot of press, a lot of enthusiasm,” remembers Bob Embry, commissioner of housing for Baltimore in the mid-1970s and creator of the original $1 home program. “It was an indicator of reversing the exit of middle-class families from the city that started after the Second World War.”

One of the most successful efforts, in a little neighborhood known as Otterbein, included 100 homes in three blocks. Approximately 800 qualified applicants went through a screening process to ensure they had the resources available to actually fix the homes. A lottery system selected from the hundreds eligible.

“We were all in it together,” remembers Jeffrey Lauren, one of the original homesteaders in the $1 house program.  “In 1975, there was nothing here. We were surrounded, everything to the east and west was just paved parking lots and warehouses. It was a leap of faith.”

Lauren and his wife Susan Leviton were in their 20s at the time and almost 50 years later they still live in the shell they transformed into a beautifully appointed home. Today Otterbein is an isolated island of tranquility surrounded by high rises, the Inner Harbor tourism node built in the 1980s, sports stadiums and a series of high-speed roadways.
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Jeffrey and Susan Lauren bought their $1 house in the 1970s. Their living room was once a candy store.
(David KIDD/Governing)
But in the 1970s, it wasn’t clear things would turn out this way. Leviton and Lauren remember their neighbors struggling with repairing the homes, getting screwed over by contractors, and in some cases selling out and leaving as soon as they were legally allowed to.

“You have people who have no idea what it means to work with different contractors to build a house, you have no idea what's there,” says Leviton. “A lot of people originally got involved with contractors and it wasn't great. They sold their house and the second group who came in would redo the house. It was a very difficult project.”

The couple are avid followers of local news and have read about Mosby’s proposal with disquiet. They think the lesson that should be taken from the original program is that reinvestment efforts work best when they are targeted and that affordable housing should involve greater government intervention or nonprofits that can provide development and contracting expertise.

“It just made me sad when I read about it in the newspaper,” says Leviton. “It's wasting money. We need a very targeted approach and somebody with government backing who can do affordable housing.”

Baltimore wasn’t the only city back then to go for flashy, headline-grabbing dollar home programs. The concept was also utilized by similar deindustrializing rowhouse cities including Wilmington, Del., and Trenton, N. J.

That’s where Mallach, now of the Center for Community Progress, encountered the remnants of such an effort. When he started as Trenton’s director of Housing and Economic Development in 1990, he found that most of the participants wanted out.

“They were in over their heads, they couldn't get the house fixed, and they'd already gotten themselves deep into financial holes as a result,” remembers Mallach. “I set up a way to basically take the houses back from them and close out the program.”

But Mosby says that his program is unlike any ever tried before, in Baltimore at least. Although influences of the original program are obvious — the $1 purchase price, legislative language describing “urban homesteading” — he says the difference is it targets people who already have a stake in these divested areas but are currently renting.

“This is very unconventional, giving renters access to properties but also building equity at a time when the real estate value is taking off and communities are changing,” says Mosby.

Why Mosby Wants to Try Again

Mosby is convinced the program will work because he has personally experienced fixing up a long-abandoned house in a troubled neighborhood. In 2004, at the age of 25, he purchased a shell of a house in a neighborhood known as Reservoir Hill.

The area is now a stable anchor of West Baltimore. Back then, however, Mosby recalls that all the houses across the street were vacant. The house next door was empty too. He could stand in the basement, next to a tree that had rooted there, look up and see the sky.

“We wanted to live in West Baltimore,” says Mosby. “I went out and got my own financing and fixed it. I've gone through that process. I have a certain level of understanding of it that maybe other members don't. There's a lot of opportunities out there for folks to do the same thing.”
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Scrapbooks filled with old photos and newspaper clippings document the transformation of the Lauren’s $1 home.
(David KIDD/Governing)
Mosby brings up this story as a response to one of the most persistent critiques of his bill, brought up by progressive groups like Community Development Network of Maryland and Fight Blight Bmore. They fear that the scale of renovations needed to ensure a $1 home project works will set working-class participants up to fail, as Mallach described in his Trenton experience.

Mosby rejects that idea. He figured out how to fix up an old home in West Baltimore and believes other people can too (although he was an electrical engineer and his wife an attorney). The bill requires FHA and city-approved first-time homebuyers workshops, he notes, and that programs run by organizations like The Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America have a strong record with helping working-class people buy their first homes.

“This idea that working-class folks in Baltimore City can't manage to work through a construction loan; it's just unacceptable,” says Mosby. “When people say we don't want to put folks in a position that's going to harm them economically in the future — I just don't prescribe to that.”

There’s also the question of the appraisal gap: the difference between what it costs to renovate the house and what the appraiser will say it's worth when it's done. Why would banks issue loans for a house that will be worth less than the cost of its rehab?

By Mosby’s calculations, the $50,000 grant should take care of that. A 1,200- to 1,400-square-foot house should cost roughly $125 a square foot to rehab. Put $50,000 in city-provided equity into the home and the loan would only have to be $90,000, with a monthly mortgage that’s cheaper than most rents in Baltimore right now.

Mosby’s critics say the facts on the ground don’t match his ambitions. Many of the vacant properties that the city owns are bigger than 1,400 square feet, grander buildings that present even greater challenges.

“We have so many vacant properties that are really humongous,” says Odette Ramos, a councilmember who voted against the bill and is a former community development professional. “The rehab cost is going to be a lot higher than what the house is worth. If we narrowed it down to houses that are 1,400 square feet, that would work. The problem is that we don't have that many of those that are city owned.”

Those the city does have are scattered throughout Baltimore. The $1 house program of the 1970s was a success when it was concentrated in areas like Otterbein, where people bought in together and felt like a part of something bigger. But when the city expanded it to vacant sites it owned across the city in the 1980s, they did not experience the same success. Today the public owns 1,500 of the 15,000 officially vacant properties and none are concentrated in blocks like Otterbein.

Like many critics of the bill, Ramos credits Mosby with thinking big around one of the largest challenges facing Baltimore. Local housing experts say the same. They know Nick Mosby, agree with him on a lot of issues and think he has the right general idea. But they fear that this exact bill is not the answer.

“$150 million on an equitable community development strategy is the right down payment and this is the right time for it,” says Michael Braverman, Baltimore’s former housing commissioner. “Nick's got the right idea there. It costs money to do this work right. And to do this work equitably, it costs even more. But the efficient way to do that is not captured by this legislation.”

Braverman argues that there are already organizations on the ground making meaningful strides against vacancy, and that the money could be better targeted toward efforts where there is already momentum.

Braverman mentions a vacant block in West Baltimore that is getting rehabilitated with the support of the Upton Planning Committee. He also cites Druid Heights CDC, also in West Baltimore, that’s been demolishing vacant rowhouses and replacing them with new townhomes. The North East Housing Initiative creates home ownership for people at 50 percent of area median income and does it with a community land trust model that preserves affordability. Braverman also notes that during his tenure there was an absolute reduction in vacant buildings for the first time in decades. Why not emulate what’s already been proven?
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Dave Braxton, a one-time resident of West Baltimore, has watched his old neighborhood deteriorate for years.
(David KIDD/Governing)
But Mosby is not giving up. He thinks the current mayor’s plan for the American Rescue Plan Act funds is too diffuse, spreading money around too many initiatives and too many issue areas. (It would spend about half the amount on fighting vacancy.) He’s determined to go big to fight blight by helping the city’s working-class residents.

“When you look at decades upon decades of how the city has disposed of property it's never been to average workaday citizens,” says Mosby. “I get this is an unconventional direction. I’m interested in learning from dissenting votes to try to figure out how we can work through it.”

Mosby points out this is a pilot program, lasting two years. If the program doesn’t work, the funds can be reallocated to other blight-fighting techniques. But he doesn’t think that will happen.

Back in Harlem Park, Braxton listens to Mosby approvingly. He doesn’t live in Baltimore anymore, having moved with his family out to suburban Harford County. But a lot of his relatives are still in the city, and he’s dismayed that his mother and aunt live next to vacant houses.

He loves Mosby’s idea. As a legacy resident of the city, he would be eligible to enter the program.

“It's pure genius because you absolutely have a quiet groundswell of people who would love that opportunity,” said Braxton. “I don't think they have enough houses to support the amount of Baltimoreans who would come in and purchase those houses.”
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Mosby hopes his version of the $1 house program will bring life back to neighborhoods like Harlem Park.
(David KIDD/Governing)
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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