Dollar Houses, the 2017 Version

Photo of West Baltimore vacant homes.The fact that our City Council wants to bring back the Baltimore Dollar House program has been in the news lately, and so far everything I’ve read or heard leaves more questions than answers.  The program was successful back in the 1970s-1980s, as potential homeowners could purchase City-owned homes for $1, provided they had the capacity and resources to renovate them in a timely fashion and then agreed to live in them for a period of time. In the ten years I’ve been writing about vacants and housing in Baltimore, it’s a topic that’s frequently raised but hasn’t gained much renewed momentum until now.

Dollar House Background

The program started as the Home Ownership Development Program in the early 1970s, and was created by the Baltimore Department of Community and Housing Development (DHCD). It was eventually expanded by DHCD and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and was renamed the Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program (aka “The Dollar House Program”).

Bar chart of Baltimore's population decline. Source: Baltimore City Dept. of PlanningBoth programs, along with a handful of previous (yet very similar) Baltimore programs, were designed to stabilize neighborhoods plagued by vacancy by encouraging home ownership. Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania also developed similar schemes, with mixed results. For many cities across the country, the 1970s were also at the beginning of what would end up being a sharp decline in population due to continued white flight and a loss of good-paying jobs that normally would have channeled residents onto a trajectory of upward mobility. It’s important to note that this decline continues today in Baltimore, for many of the same reasons.

Photo of W Barre Street, part of the Barre Circle Neighborhood.Three areas of Baltimore were chosen for the Dollar House program, as all three had pockets of vacant derelict houses: Otterbein, Barre Circle, and part of Oldtown (Stirling Street). Initially, the City wanted to use the “scattered site” model of choosing which homes should be included, but then-Housing Commissioner Bob Embry (now president of the Abell Foundation) and then-Deputy Commissioner Jay Brodie (former president of the Baltimore Development Corporation) decided that the clustered site model should be used, in the hopes of creating more of an opportunity for full-neighborhood revitalization.

Photo of the Stirling Street neighborhood, Baltimore, MD.It’s interesting to note that the scattered site model is mostly used today for public/subsidized housing, in an effort to not concentrate poverty in one neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to Baltimore’s lack of investment outside the city center, that plan has backfired horribly. Most of the city’s vacants are concentrated on the West and East sides. In hindsight, one has to wonder what would have happened if the Dollar House program had been implemented using the scattered site model as initially proposed.

Photo of the Otterbein neighborhood, Baltimore, MD.The three neighborhoods picked for the program have changed immensely since the 1970s and 80s. Otterbein is currently a majority upper-income white neighborhood, and home to local politicians, judges, and business people. Barre Circle is also a higher-income enclave than the neighborhood that surrounds it, Pigtown, and was also more stable than Pigtown over the mid-2000s mortgage boom and subsequent bust. The same applies to Stirling Street, the first of the three neighborhoods to be renovated under the program, but to a much lesser extent, given the dilapidation of the area that surrounds it. The stability of these three areas is important to keep in mind, as they were originally supposed to be demolished — the program was obviously successful, albeit for very small portions of the city, two of which that ended up being very white and affluent, compared to the blocks that ringed each of the Dollar House groups at that time.

Following the Money

At the start of the original Dollar House effort Baltimore issued a $2 million loan fund, with loans made on 25 to 30 properties, and the average loan being approximately $8000. (To be able to replicate this in 2017, it would take approximately five to ten times that amount, given the increase in construction costs since the late 1970s to present day.) A much larger portion of the funding came from HUD, under the Section 312 Loan Program, a rehabilitation loan program that was created as part of the Housing Act of 1964.  The funding was ended in 2001, and is not likely (particularly under the current HUD Secretary) to be reissued anytime soon. As such, proponents for any new program would have to come up with a way to fund it — something Baltimore isn’t particularly good at doing, considering the number of “game changers” residents have paid for with little to no actual benefit. Also, choosing the areas in which to implement a new program would be no easy task, considering Baltimore’s 50+ year legacy of redlining Black neighborhoods.

New Requirements and Conclusion

Any serious programming conversations would have to include an economic justice component, given the current lack of investment in East and West Baltimore. We also have to look at the scale of success of past efforts, and ensure that any kind of comprehensive funding plan doesn’t rely on nonprofits and foundations to lead the way — similar to what happened in Sandtown in the 1990s, which has produced little to no long-term positive results for the majority of residents, despite a price tag of over $130 million.

Despite the earlier success of Baltimore’s Dollar House program, I don’t think it’s something we can repeat on the scale needed to revitalize Baltimore’s blighted neighborhoods in a sustainable way, especially given the lack of available funding. What Baltimore needs now, and has needed for decades, is a Housing Authority and elected officials who care about our city’s residents, and understand the urgent need for safe and affordable housing: both owner-occupied and rentals.

2 thoughts on “Dollar Houses, the 2017 Version

    • Since the plan hasn’t been implemented yet, I really don’t know. There hasn’t been a lot of transparency as to how the plan would work, and what kind of restrictions would be in place.

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