The first public hearing for a package of bills aimed at reviving Baltimore’s decades-old dollar home program being advanced by City Council President Nick Mosby raised more questions than it answered about the proposal’s ability to expand homeownership opportunities in long-disinvested Baltimore neighborhoods.
“Today is just for us to all go through the bill to ensure that we get ahead of any misconceptions,” Mosby said at the start of the Dec. 20 virtual hearing, framed photos of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman behind him, “so we’re all on the same page when we leave here tonight.”
Of primary concern was the return of the $1 homes program, which would make city-owned vacants available to longtime city residents for $1 if they are able to repair and live in the property. At one point, Nathan Pool, the fiscal legislative analyst for the Office of the City Council President, made an eyebrow-raising claim that 190,000—or nearly one-in-three Baltimore residents—would qualify for the program.
“There are roughly 191,292 households that would be eligible,” Pool said. “I know I didn’t calculate that, I’m having trouble finding it right now, but I’ll send it in the chat as soon as I find it.”
“That’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for a tremendous amount of people,” Mosby declared.
Members of the City Council were skeptical of such a high number.
“I mean, that’s just about the entire city,” Councilperson Isaac “Yizty” Schliefer noted.
Finally, Councilperson Mark Conway chimed in with a significantly lower estimate provided by Pool after the initial estimate.
“There’s no perfect data on this but with census data, there’s a rough estimate of 17,000 households that have been rented for 15 or more years,” Conway said. “So that whittles down that 191,000 significantly.”
As The Real News has reported, many critics of the $1 homes program proposed by Mosby noted that its effects on housing in Baltimore when the program was originally enacted decades ago were also vastly overstated. Fewer than 200 homes were sold through the past $1 homes program, mostly to the benefit of white homebuyers. A similar program in Philadelphia—which the Council President’s Office said they analyzed—was also only minimally successful. According to a 2020 Philadelphia Inquirer analysis, 2,314 houses were sold through the city’s program since 2000, and more than half remained vacant. A third of the houses, meanwhile, were resold, netting millions for property-flipping developers.
Mosby has arranged things in such a way that the legislation is receiving less scrutiny than it would going through the standard review process. by has made it so the legislation meets less scrutiny than usual. Instead of going through the typical committee process, the $1 homes legislation is being heard by the full City Council with Mosby invoking his powers to bypass individual committees and directly chair the hearing with the process known as the “Committee of the Whole.” The Council president and staffers presented the legislation, but city agencies were not asked to provide analysis, as typically occurs when the council considers legislation.
Frequently during the hearing, when Mosby was being grilled about the program, he instructed people to “read the FAQ,” a sunny description of the program posted to the City Council website that is short on details. This was the same line Mosby’s Communications Director Yvonne Wenger (who recently left the office to work for the Archdiocese of Baltimore) provided to The Real News when we inquired about specifics on the bill.
As Battleground Baltimore has reported, many have questioned whether the bill would help those most affected by racist housing policies in Baltimore. Beyond an initial $25,000 grant, the legislation doesn’t provide further financial assistance to would-be homeowners. Those homeowners would be left to turn to banks or other lenders to raise the additional capital needed for repairs. That amount could be $100,000 or more, which could exclude those with poor or no credit.
Under questioning from Councilmember Danielle McCray, Mosby cited a national study that found rehabbing a home can cost $140,000. But Mosby insisted applicants could utilize banks and FHA loans to secure the additional necessary capital to complete the renovation, an answer that did not satisfy many who took part in the public comment period.
“There is no measure that will ensure that houses made available for this program will be affordable,” said Nneka Nnamdi of Fight Blight Bmore, who testified at the hearing. “The program doesn’t include the availability of low-cost or low-interest mortgages for program participants. And we can’t trust the banks to do that. Because though the banks will protect their interests, they will not protect the interest of the people. The subprime lending crisis should have made that clear.”
A statement was released by Fight Blight Bmore after the hearing, expounding on Nnamdi’s comments.
United Way of Central Maryland estimates that in 2018, 55% of Baltimore residents could be classified as working poor (i.e., employed but earning low wages that don’t cover their expenses). As of 2019, the median income in Baltimore is less than $30,000.
Critics didn’t argue with the merits of Mosby’s $1 homes legislation. Indeed, Baltimore has a substantial lack of affordable housing, and Black residents have been historically denied wealth-building opportunities through homeownership and face a massive racial wealth gap. But many questioned the actual mechanics of the legislation and whether it would actually undo the damage inflicted by state-sanctioned redlining and exploitative real estate practices or perpetuate it.
Kyle from Housing Our Neighbors, an advocacy group for those facing housing insecurity, questioned whether the program would actually reach the intended targets.
“This program seems like it would not meet the housing needs of the zero to 30% AMI [Average Median Income],” Kyle said. “I’m wondering about people who might have been evicted a few times and whether they will be able to access the program due to a low credit score.”
Mosby responded directly.
“The point of this bill is not to address homelessness. Homelessness is a tremendous problem in the city of Baltimore,” Mosby said before being briefly interrupted by Fight Blight Bmore’s Nnamdi.
“That’s not what nobody said…” Nnamdi said before she was muted. The issue was, in part, that the $1 homes program has been framed by Mosby as a way to address Baltimore’s history of redlining and segregation; in practice, however, it appears to benefit those with access to money and who already possess real estate savvy.
Mosby continued, explaining that the program is not directed at those who “have no income” or are homeless.
“This is a mortgage program,” Mosby explained. “It’s not that there won’t be other initiatives in the council directly tied to homeless[ness], but the point of this is not specific to addressing the needs and concerns of the homeless population in the city.”
Then there was an incredibly long pause, until one of the few people who testified in favor of the bill spoke up. The speaker noted that she lives in Atlanta and is a housing developer. She is not from Baltimore, but visits sometimes, and supports the bill.
“I just wanted to share that, and I’m all with you guys for trying to make a change because Baltimore really needs it. And it is a beautiful place,” she said. “I was just there at the mayor’s event last week and I really just love it there, so I can definitely see the potential and I wish you all the best. And if I can do anything to help as a developer and helping these people get their home in order and remodel or develop, I would love to help.”