Mark Parker responded to the questionnaire, and his answers appear below, with no edits.
1. Baltimore City has 30,000+ vacant homes. How do you intend to clean up blight in your district that isn’t a rehash or continuation of previous plans? And how do you propose to pay for your plan?
Within our district, most of the vacant and blighted homes are located within a five minute walk of my house. While other plans may be appropriate for the city at large–whether variations on Vacants to Values, or the strengthened emphasis on demolition–solutions here can be more focused and effective. As a community, we have already and continue to identify vacant and blighted properties ourselves, make official complaints to housing officials, and push for increased enforcement action against those properties. As an individual, I search for the owner of record for vacant properties in my neighborhood, reach out to them to encourage them to sell or redevelop, and then connect them with local companies willing to fix up those properties for sale. As a member of the Southeast CDC board of directors, and a partner with their staff in community work, I’m part of a group of people identifying vacant properties on difficult blocks in our community for purchase, rehabilitation, and sale for homeownership by the SECDC. In our community, with the level of private investment that already exists, and the relatively low vacancy rates, we are able to make significant progress without significant government investment or massive programs.
2. The two fastest-growing income groups in Baltimore are those who earn $75,000 and up, and those who earn $25,000 and below. The middle class in Baltimore is stagnating, and struggling to afford rental housing. How do you propose to keep median-income renters from leaving the city without pushing them into homeownership they may not want or be able to afford?
This is an interesting question, and one I think isn’t primarily about housing but about economic opportunity. That is to say, my experience here in Highlandtown & Patterson Park (some of the most economically diverse communities in Baltimore) isn’t primarily that middle-income people are leaving the city because of high rent, but that there are few jobs available which would provide an income between $25,000 and $75,000. While high rent does drive people from our neighborhoods, I suspect the most significant driver of economic stratification in Baltimore isn’t suburban flight but simply the lack of middle-income jobs.
That being said, I happen to have one of those rare jobs and know plenty of people who do–college educated people, mostly, who are either early in their careers or who have chosen non-profit or public service work that provides a modest income. Housing is challenging for those in the middle, especially when it comes to rising rent. I’ll push back a bit on the question, though, in part because of my work with the Southeast CDC and others on homeownership issues. The financial reality in our neighborhood is that you can rent a house for $1500 a month that you could purchase for $1,000 a month. The same is true out in Greektown, Bayview, and Eastwood. Of course homeownership isn’t the solution for everyone. But when renters pay such a premium, it only makes sense that we would seek to expand education and opportunities for renters to move toward homeownership.
3. Our Housing Authority has a decades-long reputation for corruption and incompetence at its top leadership tier. How do you plan to address this?
There is plenty of material in the Housing Authority to feed a robust and thorough criminal investigation by local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies. While outside of the purview of the City Council, I’ll certainly encourage those investigations to take place. The City Council does have an important oversight role for HABC leadership and expenditures– an oversight role which they seem to have mostly abandoned until recent disclosures forced HABC into the headlines. The continued support for commissioner Graziano from the mayor and, at least in the past, the majority of the council is puzzling. I had a summer fellowship in HCD back in 2002 and was convinced even back then that Graziano was not long for the position. Fourteen years later, here he is. In any event, that will change with a new administration. I’ll look to support a commissioner who not only possesses management skills and personal integrity, but who is able to articulate exactly where they suspect the incompetence lies in the current system and how they propose to root it out.
4. It’s been said that Baltimore’s tax sale process is burdensome to seniors and low income residents, forcing many out of their homes. How do you plan to make this process easier for those who are struggling to pay for their water bills and property taxes, and how would you better structure the city’s tax sale process to ensure homes aren’t purchased and subsequently neglected?
Baltimore’s tax sale process is demonstrably unjust and burdensome to seniors and low income residents, allowing so-called investors to take advantage of poor, disabled, and elderly residents by purchasing liens which charge 18% interest as well as lawyer and title fees. In replying to this question, I am leaning heavily on the October 2014 report commissioned by the Abell Foundation.
Some basic reforms will help. 1) Increase the threshold for tax sale from $250 to $1000. 2) Decrease the interest rate from 18% to 12%. 3) Remove water bills from the tax sale process. A further necessary reform within the water billing system would be to do away with the current minimum payment structure (which falls disproportionately on seniors and other small households) and set up instead a base water infrastructure fee alongside a lower cost per unit for water and sewer use. As well, there should be no “volume” discounts for high-volume (that is, non-residential) water users. Seniors and water-conserving households shouldn’t be subsidizing institutional users, and certainly shouldn’t be brought up in the tax sale process as a result.
Purchase and neglect, whether through the tax sale process or some other means of obtaining a property, slows down progress within neighborhoods and continues cycles of abandonment and disinvestment. Purchasers through tax sale need to be held accountable for actually completing the process by recording new deeds of ownership and paying city
taxes. Only a small fraction of them do so, as they seem to be motivated more by the prospect of wringing usurious interest and fees from penurious homeowners than by actually obtaining and improving the property in question. The city, then, is left with the challenge of further abandonment and unclear ownership for these properties. There need to be strict deadlines following a tax sale for recording new deeds of ownership and either fixing up or occupying the property in question.
5. If you plan to introduce a reduction in property taxes, please indicate that, but also indicate how you plan to make up for the lost revenue.
Being mindful of the practical limits of the power of a single City Council representative, it’s prudent to start by stating that property tax reductions are primarily the purview of the mayor and her or his budgetary staff. I am committed to the long-term reduction of city property taxes, and am open to the proposals of our various mayoral candidates. I’m deeply skeptical of any tax reduction plan that simply shifts revenue from one stream (property taxes) to another (user fees), especially when the impact would be regressive.
That being said, the general principles I bring to property tax reduction (which could easily become policies as well) are that 1) generalized tax relief is preferable to specific subsidies or tax cuts for particular projects or populations; and 2) increases in city property tax income ought to result in some form of property tax cut–functionally, a reinvestment of that increased revenue (because of higher assessments) back into the pockets of homeowners who are paying those higher taxes. For example, property tax revenues were expected to increase from $784,900,000 in 2015 to $857,200,000 in 2016, but the budget called for no tax relief. If we’re paying an extra $72,000,000 in taxes, then we ought to get some of that back in the form of a decrease in the tax rate. Thus our tax rate declines as a property values increase, further making the city a more attractive place to live and do business, further increasing tax revenue, further lowering rates, etc. This is a sustainable pattern–much more so than ridiculous plans calling for the slashing of the rate by 50% or other completely imaginary numbers.
Setting up a system akin to Washington, DC which would allow for vacant and blighted properties to be taxed at higher rates would 1) generate a bit more revenue from those properties and 2) incentivize real development of those properties, generating even more revenue.
6. How do you propose enforcing Baltimore City’s inclusionary housing law?
How I see things, this isn’t primarily an enforcement issues, it’s an issue of having an incredibly weak and ineffective inclusionary housing law. When the law only created 25 new units over the first five years of operation, at a cost to the city of nearly $70,000 per unit, and all of those units went to mid-income people ($50k-$80k), then clearly, clearly, the law is non-functional.
The law should apply to all projects with thirty units or higher, not just those projects which receive taxpayer support. Developers should not be compensated at market rate for those units. The income thresholds for receiving those units should be set at two different levels–low-income and moderate-income. And developers should have the flexibility to have the subsidized units be not quite as large or built-out as the market rate units in that development.
7. Is there anything else voters should know about your approach to housing in District 1?
We have no sustainable future as a city if our future development and public policies simply perpetuate the same economic and racial housing segregation that marked our last century as a city. Community land trusts, a strengthened inclusionary housing law, and initiatives to make homeownership possible for more of our Latino neighbors are approaches that hold promise for preventing continued residential segregation. The cultural and economic diversity that we experience in Highlandtown & Patterson Park needs to be a model for what healthy Baltimore neighborhoods look like moving forward. Without changes in policy and practice, though, such diversity will be eroded over time by the pressure of rising housing costs, the lack of economic opportunity for young people, and the inability of some neighbors to obtain home loans for which they are financially qualified, solely on the basis of their immigration status. Concentrated poverty and mono-cultural communities limit economic opportunity, exacerbate prejudice, drain limited city resources, and contribute to high rates of criminality & addiction. Displacement of people living in poverty to other areas of concentrated poverty just moves people and challenges around, but doesn’t do anything to improve conditions for city residents or strengthen the city as a whole.