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Dollar house hearing turns into shouting match

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City Council President Nick Mosby speaking at a press conference with NACA just before Tuesday's hearing.

A hearing on Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby’s proposal to revive the city’s dollar house program turned into a shouting match Tuesday night as city council members opposed to the proposal clashed with a rowdy crowd of supporters and their leader.

The crowd was led by Bruce Marks, the CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), a nonprofit mortgage broker, who accused Mayor Brandon Scott of being opposed to affordable housing.

At one point, his followers charged to the mayor’s office, banging on his door and demanding he come out.

“He's hiding behind his metal door,” Marks said.

“I don’t think he’s even here,” someone said.

District 14 Councilwoman Odette Ramos, among the opponents of the legislative package, asked Marks to address some of her concerns about the program and what role an organization like NACA may have.

Ramos said she had looked NACA up on the Better Business Bureau.

“There are several complaints about your loan servicing,” Ramos said. “I'm wondering how you can answer that. It looks like people were upset about the customer service and about how things were handled. It's been an issue that some of my housing counselors had been concerned about.”

Marks lashed out.

“I don’t understand why you’re doing the bidding for the real estate community out there and for the investors,” he said.

“You can’t accuse me of that,” Ramos shouted repeatedly as Marks’ supporters applauded.

The two began to shout over each other as Mosby banged his gavel for order and called on Marks to apologize.

The hearing was the first discussion of Mosby’s proposal at City Hall, which re-opened earlier this month after being closed because of COVID. Mosby introduced the legislative package last year.

“We understand and know that this is a heavy lift. And that's why we're all gathered to hear here today,” Mosby said at a press conference announced just hours before it began.

The dollar house program from the ‘70s and ‘80s allowed residents to buy vacant homes for a dollar, provided they renovated the homes to live in.

Mosby’s effort to revive it faced opposition from the mayor, city agency leaders, and half the council, including its progressive members.

Among their concerns are that the cost of renovating a home would be higher than the home’s eventual value, and the proposed program would inadvertently put people buying and renovating the homes underwater. In March, Mosby’s package failed to move out of committee.

Marks joined Mosby at the press conference and charged that “developers and their money” had gotten to the mayor. “Now we have to hold him accountable,” Marks said.

At the hearing, Ramos’ progressive colleagues were visibly upset by Marks’ accusations. District 3 Councilman Ryan Dorsey left the hearing, later tweeting that it was “an embarrassment” and “astroturf nonsense.”

District 1 Councilman Zeke Cohen told Marks that Ramos was one of the council’s foremost experts on affordable housing.

“The person that you were personally insulting is deeply invested in this work,” Cohen said.

He also pushed back against Marks’ comments that the mayor was “bought and paid for by the real estate industry.”

“That’s an outrageous claim,” Cohen said repeatedly, as Mosby cut in.

“Councilman Cohen, we’ve gone over that,” Mosby said. “I think I did a good job of controlling the chamber.”

“Well, I feel on behalf of my colleague and my mayor that I’m gonna need to express my concern about it,” Cohen replied.

He told WYPR afterward that he appreciates the intent of the legislation, but that he remains opposed and expressed concern about NACA and its role.

Mosby said that NACA is not part of his legislation, and that the organization was simply there to show support.

“It was really to address any of the past misconceptions or questions or concerns that folks had associated with the bill,” he told WYPR.

After Tuesday’s hearing, the Mayor’s Director of Communications James Bentley wrote in a statement to WYPR that the mayor has proven his commitment to addressing vacant properties and creating opportunities for residents in underserved communities to become homeowners. He added that Scott recently allocated $100 million in ARPA funds for housing equity initiatives.

“Baltimore residents need real transformational change, not more pie in the sky,” Bentley said. “Frankly, the Council President's legislation does not match the Mayor's vision for meaningful policy and programs designed to help our communities or even come close. This legislation appears more harmful than helpful.”

He added that the mayor’s office had never heard from or been in contact with NACA prior to Tuesday’s events.

“They banged on the Mayor's door twice today,” Bentley wrote. “That has been the extent of our interaction.”