Vacants to Value's bogus numbers exposed

UPDATE: Joan Jacobson, the study's author, contacted City Paper with two corrections to the story below, which has been edited to correct. First the 1,585 houses is the list the city says were rehabbed in the first four years, not five. Secondly, It was not correct to conclude that a total of 970 properties were not part of V2V, because there was some overlap in the categories of properties that the study found were not part of V2V. An exact count is not possible with the data provided, but it's fair to say at least 679 were not part of V2V.

 

The city of Baltimore boasts that its innovative Vacants to Value program renovated 1,585 houses in its first four years. The real number, according to a comprehensive report from the Abell Foundation, is no more--and probably less--than 906.

"It is making a difference in select city neighborhoods at a time when the housing market is recovering from one of the worst recessions since the Depression," the report, by former Sun reporter Joan Jacobson, says. "However, this study found that the city has overstated the reach of Vacants to Value and that the program was not the catalyst for the redevelopment of hundreds of buildings included in the city's list of 1,585 properties."

As City Paper has previously reported, the numbers reported by the Vacants to Value (V2V for short) website and repeated by public officials have never added up. We could not verify the figures that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake cited in her 2013 state of the city address, for example, in part because the V2V documents we got were contradictory

Begun in 2010, V2V is a mix of targeted enforcement and incentives to spur renovation of housing in areas that are not gentrifying but are not seen as lost causes. Owners of vacant structures were given $900 citations for code violations to spur renovation. Those who did not respond were given nuisance notices, spurring a process of "receivership" in which the city gets a judge to declare the house a nuisance and the city transfers it to a nonprofit called One House At A Time, which auctions the property. Buyers are supposed to show the ability to renovate the houses: They need to have about $90,000 in cash. Owner-occupants were offered the possibility of city loans and even grants, although the targeted populations—police, teachers, and firefighters—did not respond strongly to the program.

Originally slated to renovate 1,500 properties in its first year, V2V garnered praise nationally for its innovative features. Rawlings-Blake even touted it during a White House Visit.

The problem was that the numbers the program touted were never consistent, and the V2V website made it impossible to reconcile them. 

Jacobson received the database of all V2V properties which, she notes, "is not publicly available on the Vacants to Value website." She took 10 months to check every address on it, and found 11 apartment buildings on the list and "22 nonresidential properties, including auto repair shops, hair salons, and warehouses. The study found that rehabilitation of the majority of these properties was not triggered by Vacants to Value."

She found 33 houses owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and used as public housing. One would not usually associate those with city code-enforcement crackdowns.

She found a city-owned building "occupied by the Station North Arts and Entertainment District."

In addition, 416 properties listed as V2V successes had construction permits before V2V started in 2010—including more than 100 with permits dating to 2007. An additional 263 buildings cited as V2V-spurred renovations had not been granted any construction permits at all. Jacobson found another 291 rental properties had never been cited as vacants or involved in receivership litigation, the mainsprings of V2V--although these overlap the other two categories.

That makes at least 679 of the 1,585 renovations, leaving no more than 906 as indisputably part of the program. 

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano told Jacobson that the housing department's count was accurate and its methodology sound. He "presented a method for the program's accounting: Tallying all properties that received occupancy permits after vacant building notices were canceled, marking them as successful outcomes," the report says. Graziano basically says the threat of the $900 fines made things happen, and because V2V incorporated those fines into the program, they are properly credited to V2V.

Even with one third of the claimed renovations discounted, V2V has been the most successful program of its type. Its predecessors, SCOPE and Project 5000, did no better; SCOPE renovated fewer than 300 houses, the report says. (City Paper was told the figure was less than half that in 2010 as that initiative gave way to V2V.)

Jacobson's report recommends the program find more capital for the developers (and a few homeowners) who have rehabbed these houses. It suggests the receivership program has worked well. It suggests a cost-benefit analysis.

As with so many things in Baltimore government, the squishy numbers have served their political purpose, allowing politicians to claim credit. The bottom line, however, is less encouraging. During V2V, Jacobson found, the number of vacant city structures has continued to increase: from about 16,000 in 2010 to, at last check, more than 16,600.

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