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Signs, Everywhere Signs

Citizens Unite To Do Away With Illegal Real Estate Signs

Frank Klein
SNIP IT, SNIP IT IN THE BUD: City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District) has sponsored a bill to increase penalties for posting "bandit signs" like the one she's cutting down here.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 4/12/2006

Not too long ago, George L. Peters Jr. of Hampden walked out of his house and noticed a couple of WE BUY HOUSES signs posted on a nearby light pole. Like everyone, he’d seen them before. And like everybody who volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, which makes a point of removing them, he knew they were illegal. “They make the neighborhood look trashy,” Peters says. “I just took them down.”

The next day there were 80 of them or more, Peters says. “Someone had come in the middle of the night” and hung them all along the West 36th Street (the Avenue), Roland Avenue, and Keswick Road. And whereas Peters, who is 6-foot-6, reached the first couple easily, the new batch were “20 feet in the air,” he says.

“I stood there contemplating it for a few minutes,” Peters says. “Then I went and bought a tree-limb lopper.” He says he pruned away all the new signs in less than an hour.

A few blocks away, in Charles Village, Ralph and Dana Moore were climbing ladders to remove other “bandit signs,” as freelance real-estate investors call them. Ralph Moore says he borrowed a pair of scissors from a 7-Eleven clerk to cut the first one down but broke the scissors. “Now we use a garden tool,” he says. “We keep it in the car now.”

And so, says Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), was born a movement. “This is grass-roots guerrilla warfare,” she says gleefully.

By the last week of March, the Moores were taking down the signs around their church, and Dana had contacted Clarke, who suggested an April Fools’ Day rally and sign-clipping party in Charles Village. Ralph Moore says about 25 people showed up for that, including representatives from the Northeast Community Organization, Guilford on Greenmount, Ednor Gardens/Lakeside, Charles Village, Abell, Oakenshawe, Waverly at Belle Terre, Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Community Law Center and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. “We felt good about it because many of them represented citywide neighborhood organizations,” Moore says.

Clarke says she suspects that the people responsible for the bandit signs are predators, taking advantage of homeowners who are unwary or unsophisticated about the value of their property, or simply desperate to sell to avoid foreclosure. “It’s a potential flipping issue,” she says, adding that she can’t prove it.

The councilwoman says she hopes neighborhood people like the Moores and Peters will help authorities learn if abuses are taking place. “The great thing is, once it gets a kind of grass-roots surge, people keep bringing you information,” Clarke says. “All of a sudden, it’s like, ‘We know more than we thought.’”

Clarke also hopes the “movement” will help convince the City Council to strengthen penalties for illegally posting signs. Her bill to do that—and to allow sign-clippers to designate a charity to receive half of any fines collected—has been languishing in committee for more than a year. Moore and others contacted City Council members about the sign bill, which would increase the fine for posting a commercial sign on public property from $100 to $200 and formally deputize all citizens to remove signs. Citizen clippers could either throw them away or turn them over to the city’s Department of Public Works, along with an affidavit stating where the sign was taken from, for further enforcement.

A hearing was scheduled for Monday, April 10, on the bill, and Moore says he’s encouraged by what he’s heard about the council’s position. “If they have any sense at all what the temperature of the community is—the community is pretty fed up with these,” he says.

Steve Cook, who buys and sells houses in Baltimore and teaches people how to make money doing it, says he doesn’t advise the heavy use of we buy housesësigns and posts his only on his own properties. “My personal feeling is that it’s illegal and they shouldn’t be putting them up,” says Cook, who runs a web site called FlippingHomes.com. “I don’t ever advocate anybody break the law.”

But Cook has advised some new investors—usually called “bird dogs” because they get paid to find deals for other, more wealthy investors—to use signs. “As a bird dog you want to use whatever methods necessary,” he advised one newbie last month on the FliYpingHomes online message board. “Yes I’m referring to ‘bandit signs’ when I say signs.”

Fining the sign-posters may be difficult. Peters says he called the number on the signs he removed.

“It was an answering machine on a cell phone,” he says. The message said, “‘This is Robert. Leave your personal number and your information about the house you’re selling, and I’ll return your call within 10 minutes.’ They don’t want you to know who they are. . . He’s ‘Robert.’ He’s untraceable.”

Right now the activists are concentrating on getting the signs down and building the movement. Clarke announced two more bandit sign-clipping parties scheduled for April 22 and May 20. Moore says his neighborhood is looking into the possibility of filing lawsuits against habitual violators.

“We’re trying to educate our neighbors,” Peters says. “Talking to ‘Robert’ and getting $40,000 for your house is not a good deal. We say, ‘If you can’t pay your taxes, come to us,’” for help finding tax relief. “Or if you need to sell your house, we’ll hook you up with a realtor, and they’ll get you $200,000 for your house.”

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