Shea Frederick has finally installed a back door, the only ground-level entrance into his new house in the Greenmount West neighborhood. Passersby, however, would never know it, because a door-length piece of plywood conceals the rear door.
To actually walk into his house on this day in late February, Frederick uses a hand-drill to remove six screws that hold together the door frame and the plywood, the only protection for a glass-panel door leading into a house that isn’t yet livable.
Frederick’s new house is a formerly vacant property inside Station North he purchased from the City of Baltimore through its Vacants to Value program for just under $10,000. The front door and the windows of the house’s façade are boarded up, save for three recently installed windows on the third and top-most floor. Even if there were a front door, stepping across the threshold would be impossible, as a pile of debris sits just inside the front entrance, remnants of the demolition work that still continues seven months since he bought this vacant rowhouse near the Baltimore Design School.
In January 2013 Frederick began the months-long process of finding and acquiring a vacant property from the city. Last July he closed on a rowhouse, a structurally sound building with “good bones,” he said, but one that was decrepit on the inside. Water had damaged wood floorboards. Holes punched into the walls near electrical outlets were evidence that the copper wiring had all been removed. Empty vials, for heroin or crack, Frederick surmises, were strewn about in large supply. He found piles of human feces in several places inside his future home, as well as a sawed-off shotgun.
Photos of Frederick’s vacant house from August 2013:
For Frederick, a developer at Advertising.com in Tide Point, rehabbing a house is the tangible extension of the civic hacking work he has grown more interested in since the city launched its open data portal in spring 2011. His BaltimoreVacants.org, a continuing project, maps the roughly 16,000 vacant properties contained in the city’s vacant property database on OpenBaltimore, then cross-references addresses with neighborhood information — ethnicity of the population, household income and “major rehabilitation” required — collected from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.
“The whole idea was to make these houses more visible so people will rehab them maybe,” said Frederick, 37.
What began as a civic hacking project gradually built out during weekend hackathons over the last couple years wouldn’t be enough for Frederick, who moved to Baltimore six years ago. “When I’m working on a site like that, I need to have a real-world tie that I know about,” he told Technical.ly Baltimore. He stated it more explicitly at the 14th annual Ignite Baltimore this month: “I started to wonder if it made any difference at all, building a website.”
So Frederick embarked on an experiment, wagering his money and mettle to see if he could use the website he built for the purpose he intended.
Step one: buy a house from the city.
Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program was established in 2010 with one overarching goal: eliminate houses that are abandoned or boarded up — defined by the catch-all term “blight” — by making it easier for land developers or individuals to purchase city-owned blighted properties and rehabilitate them.
This is a key distinction, according to Julie Day, the deputy commissioner for land resources with Baltimore Housing who oversees city staff responsible for buying and selling city-owned properties. While counts conducted by the U.S. postal service and the Census might ballpark the number of vacant units in Baltimore between 40,000 and 45,000, she said, the number of vacants reflected on OpenBaltimore counts whole properties defined as vacant according to the city’s Building and Fire Code. Of the slightly more than 16,000 vacant properties, the city owns approximately 4,000 of them.
(Baltimore Housing is the umbrella group composed of the federally-funded Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the locally-funded Department of Housing and Community Development. The former handles public housing and Section 8 housing, while the latter deals with code enforcement, community services and housing ownership, including Vacants to Value.)
Whereas the SCOPE program run by the City of Baltimore in the years before the housing market collapse of 2008 was a “single program to sell city-owned properties using private realtors,” said Day, Vacants to Value is “using whole-block solutions to eliminate blight.” The National Resources Defense Council has a good summary of the program’s six-pronged approach, but ultimately Vacants to Value seeks to:
- Streamline the disposition process for city-owned properties. Instead of a year, it now takes about 100 days for a city-owned building to be purchased.
- Streamline code enforcement. As the NRDC notes, “In 85 designated neighborhoods with market potential, the city has issued 700 citations for building code violations (each carrying a $900 penalty) and filed 300 receivership cases to force abandoned properties to auction.”
- Encourage development in “community development clusters” by developers capable of rehabbing whole blocks of vacant properties.
- Provide financial incentives to individual homebuyers interested in rehabbing a property they plan to live in. These include $10,000 “booster” awards, of which more than 220 have been given out to homebuyers.
As of January, Baltimore Housing had a list of 1,600 residential properties available for purchase through the Vacants to Value program. Any transactions made are approved by the Board of Estimates, but it’s the Land Resources Division of Baltimore Housing that vets potential buyers by assessing both their means of paying for a house rehab and their experience or ability to perform that rehab.
In Frederick’s case, that process started at the beginning of 2013 when he chose to look at vacant houses in Greenmount West, a neighborhood inside the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. The Baltimore Design School and the Baltimore Node makerspace are close by, as well as the Station North Tool Library. All three are located on a block of Oliver Street where rehabbed rowhouses and the City Arts apartment building stand. Around the corner on Guilford Avenue are the artists’ apartments of the Copy Cat Building. Based on work he had already done for his BaltimoreVacants website, Frederick also knew the percentage of houses in the area that needed “major rehabilitation” was small.
“You gotta find that neighborhood that’s right on the tipping point,” he said. “Just watching those houses [on Oliver Street] get rehabbed kind of made me think that this neighborhood is coming up.”
A $25 waiver form from the Vacants to Value office allowed him access to five different houses, a process he repeated several times.
“You bring a screwdriver, [and] just open them up — unscrew the boards,” he said, noting that for the ones with bricked-up front doors, it’s either bring a ladder and enter through a second-floor window, or pay the city $400 to remove the bricks. “Some of them, [there’s] nothing in them. Just a front wall and a back wall.”
The Vacants to Value application itself is a document of about 14 pages, he said, and includes questions about the applicant’s credit and what the applicant’s construction plan is for the vacant property. Frederick estimates the total cost of fixing this house will come to $100,000, half of which he’s funding from personal savings, and the other half from a bank line of credit — a portion of which is a home equity line of credit against the house he currently resides in and owns in Hampden.
Officials from Day’s Land Resources Division then step in to assess the applications. Frederick said he waited roughly two months for the paperwork to clear before finally closing on his Vacants to Value property on July 31 last summer.
It’s also Day’s division that determines which houses among the city’s 16,000 vacant properties could be sold.
In “distressed markets,” as they’re called, there might be 25 houses on a block of 30 that are vacant. Vacants to Value doesn’t target these houses. Instead, Vacants to Value goes after houses in the “middle markets” — neighborhoods with lower rates of vacant housing — in the hopes of getting them rehabbed.
“Depending on what the block is and what the interest is and what we think long-term possibilities might be, that’s how we would choose ones that we would market,” she said.
Reliable numbers regarding how many Vacants to Value houses have been sold over three years are difficult to come by. When the initiative was launched by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2010, a city press release said the goal was to rehab “more than 1,000 vacant buildings.” In November 2012, the second anniversary of Vacants to Value, a city press release said more than 450 houses had been rehabbed so far, and city officials made a pledge to eliminate more than 3,000 more blighted properties over the next three years.
“When we try to come up with a single program to eliminate all that blight, it’s impossible,” Day said. “We had a million people living here at one point. Now we only have 620,000, so it stands to reason we have too many houses.
“It’s always going to be a work in progress,” she continued. “But right now we have the beginnings of a track record to show we’re headed in the right direction.”
So far Frederick feels like he’s headed in the right direction with his rehabilitation project. He generally spends weekends working inside, removing old floorboards and replacing them, attaching new ceiling joists made of sturdy, fresh lumber and installing windows. Power has been restored to the house after a friend cut him a “great deal” on the electrical work.
Challenges remain, however. Locking up financing from the bank has been “a huge pain in the ass,” he said. Other costs mount up. For instance, it’ll be about $16,000 for basic heating and air conditioning in the house. He readily admits that even a person with a pretty good job who has been saving for a while, an autobiographical description, will have trouble rehabbing a vacant property purchased for less than $10,000.
“I barely had enough to make this happen,” he said.
A check on the selling price point of rowhouses near his — between $200,000 and $240,000 — gives Frederick confidence that he’ll recoup the $100,000 he estimates he’ll spend on the rehab.
“There’s a lot of really good deals out there in the city,” he said. “I’m not making a bad investment — at least theoretically.”
In late February, as Frederick walks through a house that’s a work in progress, one gets the sense that his experiment won’t be a failed one — even if he still needs a screwdriver to get inside his own home.
Photos of Frederick’s vacant house from February 2014: