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Mosby aims to revamp popular dollar houses program in redlined neighborhoods

Nick Mosby presser November 2021
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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City Council President Nick Mosby speaks at a Monday news conference.

City Council President Nick Mosby is aiming to resurrect Baltimore’s popular dollar house program and create a fund for home repair grants of up to $25,000 for properties in redlined neighborhoods through a package of new bills introduced Monday.

The Democrat’s legislation would rent vacant homes owned by Baltimore for two-year leases at a cost of just $1. During that time, prospective buyers would pay for repairs needed to make the homes habitable. The city would then transfer the title to the buyer. A version of the dollar house program that ran in the 1970s breathed new life into neighborhoods such as Otterbein and Pigtown and was in such high demand that officials chose eligible participants through a lottery.

The package’s proposed programs, which also include a bill to give senior residents grants to pay down reverse mortgages, would cost around $200 million to fund, according to an estimate from the Council President’s office.

Mosby is calling for Mayor Brandon Scott to fund the initiatives through the American Rescue Plan Act federal stimulus. The mayor wields sole power over most city spending; the council cannot move money around the city’s budget nor dictate any spending of the $641 million in ARPA money.

Mosby argues that the ARPA funds represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and should be put toward remedying a handful of systemic issues, rather than divvying cash out in many different directions.

“Not only can we provide opportunities for folks that have been living with the crime and the blight, but provide them access to potentially becoming homeowners and developing generational wealth,” he said at a council meeting.

At a news conference ahead of that meeting, Mosby said that his team sat down with Scott staffers on Friday to discuss the bills and share data from similar programs in other cities.

“It's a lot of information. They're looking through it,” he said. “We've been partners in progress since taking over in our new roles and capacities, and we look forward to continuing to work with the mayor.”

Scott spokesman Cal Harris disputed that, saying in a statement that “the Mayor’s Office has unfortunately not received details about the Council President’s proposed legislation, but will carefully consider any ideas advanced by the City Council.

“Mayor Scott is intentional about making a transformative impact in Baltimore, particularly through the equitable distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funds,” Harris said. “To expand affordable homeownership and support for our legacy residents, the Scott administration will announce a substantial investment in historically redlined neighborhoods.”

Mosby said the dollar house program would help close the racial wealth gap by creating an affordable pathway to homeownership for long-term residents, particularly those in redlined Black neighborhoods that experienced systemic disinvestment in the early 20th century.

A 2020 report from the Abell Foundation showed that Baltimore’s Black homeownership has fallen at a greater rate than the citywide average. From 2007 to 2017, Baltimore’s homeownership rate dropped from 51% to 47%, while the Black homeownership rate plunged even further to 42%.

The homes in the proposed program would be city-owned vacants able to withstand needed repairs in neighborhoods historically overlooked by investors and revitalization efforts. At the news conference, Mosby gestured to a handful of vacant row homes owned by the city in the 900 block of N. Calhoun Street in West Baltimore as an example.

Angela LaPrade said that paying a dollar to own any one of those homes would allow her to build generational wealth. The East Baltimore resident juggles multiple jobs to pay rent for her multigenerational household. Many local grandparents house both their children and grandchildren because of high rent, she said.

“It’s hard for me to buy a house, and because my son was trying to get custody of my grandson, we had to move into a better neighborhood...because where I was living was drug-infested,” she said at the news conference. “Moving into a better neighborhood, the rent went up. It was extremely high.”

The program would only be open to certain residents: those who have lived in Baltimore for at least 15 continuous years, those who have lived in an eligible neighborhood for at least 10 years and city workers who have been employed by Baltimore for at least five years.

The legislation also prioritizes first-time homebuyers and those with a household income at or below 80% of the city’s average median income, as well as participants in the Federal Housing Choice Voucher program.

“They’ve been shut out to these opportunities previously, and this program allows them access,” Mosby said.

The program would kick off next summer and end on November 30, 2024.

Anthony Pressley, the executive director of Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, said the legislation’s focus on redlined neighborhoods would ensure that resources flowed to where they were most needed.

“It's been said by people in the community that the [city’s economic] focus is on downtown,” he said. “Well, we don't live downtown. We live over here, and it's very important that we get the resources, the support we need to bring up our communities.”

The Home Repairs Program bill would offer grants of up to $25,000 to the same group of city residents who qualify for the dollar house program. Applicants would be prioritized based on income, with low- to moderate-income homeowners receiving grants for repairs first. The program would also prioritize repairs that make homes more energy efficient.

Participants would receive up to $25,000 for general repairs and up to $10,000 for emergency repairs, repairs tied to accessibility that allow those with disabilities to move around their homes and mobile home repairs.

“There are homeowners who have been struggling to make ends meet and trying to maintain their properties,” said Councilman John Bullock, who is the lead sponsor of the repairs bill. “ We have a number of seniors who are looking to age in place in their homes and may need to retrofit those homes.”

Another bill would create a Reverse Mortgage Grant Program to give senior residents grants of up to $5,000 to make payments toward reverse mortgages — a loan in which homeowners convert property equity to cash payments, often to financially support themselves during retirement.

Eligible residents would be legacy residents from disinvested communities, have incomes at or below 80% of the area median income, be at least 60 years old or be Federal Housing Choice Voucher Recipients.

A 2019 report from the Abell Foundation found that reverse mortgages end in foreclosure six times more often in Baltimore’s predominantly Black neighborhoods than predominantly white ones.

“This bill would help to keep them back on track, reduce some stress and move forward to a happier and better life,” Sharon Green Middleton, the bill’s lead sponsor, said.

The bills were assigned to the Committee of the Whole, which encompasses the entire council rather than a handful of members.

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