Tired of the thousands of vacant structures blighting city neighborhoods, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett is proposing a new way for Baltimore to hold negligent owners accountable.
Under a bill to be introduced at tonight’s Baltimore City Council meeting, the owner of any property found violating city housing code as a “vacant structure”–one “unsafe or unfit for human habitation or other authorized use, or…a nuisance property,” per city code–would be required to post a registration sign to the building.
The signage would include the property address, plus the name, address, phone number and email for the owner of record, the “managing operator” or the head of any LLC or business entity that owns the property. Any property in default or foreclosure would have to include the name, address and phone number of any creditors or lien holders.
Aesthetically, at a minimum, a sign would need to be at least as large as a piece of letter size paper with 18-point font, “impervious to weather conditions” and would have to be “conspicuous and visible from the street or road fronting the property,” per the bill text.
Much of this info is already available online, Burnett acknowledged in a phone interview. One can usually locate a proprietor’s name and address by searching of state tax records, or by digging through business registration documents. Alternatively, they can call his office to identify the owner for a blighted building, as many do, or reach out to the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
But “there’s a lot of steps, and the information is disjointed,” the 8th District councilman said. “The idea is to make it a lot more transparent so that if there are issues with the house that need to be addressed immediately, residents don’t have to go through a bureaucratic process.”
An owner found violating Burnett’s proposed rule would face a fine of up to $500 per day. The councilman wants to send half of that money to the city’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and the other half to the general fund, which he said could help cover what would surely be an increased burden on DHCD for code enforcement.
The city has wrestled for years with thousands of vacant buildings bringing down the quality of life in neighborhoods. (The actual number is unknown: Burnett said he’s heard there are at least 17,000; Carol Ott, a slumlord watchdog who works as tenant advocacy director for the Fair Action Housing Center of Maryland, said it could be as high as 25,000.)
There have been sweeping high-profile initiatives, like former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value program to incentivize homebuyers and developers to fix up blighted properties, or Project CORE, which uses state funds to demolish entire blighted blocks at a time.
And officials have tried smaller tweaks, like a new law that took effect in 2015 making it easier for the city to take over a vacant home as soon as an owner ignores a 311 complaint, rather than waiting until it’s structurally unsafe or sitting with open windows and doors for anyone (or anything) to enter.
Ott, of Slumlord Watch fame, raised questions about Burnett’s proposal, calling it “premature” at this point. She noted the identities of those who acquire liens on vacant properties at tax sale remain protected, and that there are numerous properties that aren’t listed as “vacant structures” on city records because they haven’t specifically been cited for housing code violations.
She also wonders how the city would verify that the information on signs is correct, and who would be responsible for overseeing compliance.
“DHCD currently oversees [vacant building notices] and other vacant issues, but I think an outside organization needs to be involved in oversight,” she said.
Burnett foresees logistical issues with oversight of city-owned properties, as well as DHCD’s resources for enforcement.
“I’m sure the housing department will have some feedback on their staffing capacity to comply,” he noted. He plans to meet with housing officials to iron out details before the bill is heard in committee, but he’s not anticipating broad pushback on the idea from the agency.
With his proposed change, he said, vacant owners would be pushed to go check up on their buildings if they want to avoid paying thousands in fines.
“It creates a disincentive for you to never visit the property,” he said, and it will “make it easier for people to hold property owners accountable.”
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