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The Nose

Fudging the Numbers

Posted 2/11/2004

When Mayor Martin O'Malley announced at a Jan. 16 press Conference that Project 5000, the city's ambitious plan to buy and redevelop 5,000 vacant and abandoned properties, was on track to exceed its target, the Nose took notice. "Two years ago, we set a very, very ambitious goal considering that, in the past, we had taken an average of 200 properties per year," O'Malley told reporters that day. He promised 2,000 properties would be taken per year from now on and announced that the city already had "clear title" to 2,250 houses, with a like number in the pipeline to be ready for sale by June.

During the press conference, city Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano reportedly took on the persona of a used-car salesman, urging buyers to c'mon down.

"We've got all kinds of property," Graziano said. "You want 'em, we got 'em!"

Like many pitchmen, the commissioner exaggerated, or at least oversimplified.

Within days of the event, the Nose received a copy of an internal City Hall e-mail written by economic development officer Theresa Ward indicating that Project 5000 currently has no properties available for sale.

Apparently, the Jan. 16 horn-blowing by O'Malley and Graziano spurred a flood of inquiries from would-be buyers about Project 5000 properties. Startled City Hall property minders ping-ponged eager redevelopers between the city's economic development office and the Project 5000 office, according to the memo, which also cautions Project 5000 staffers.

"Everyone needs to be clear that while in press announcements the City says we 'have' over 2,000 Project 5000 properties now, there are degrees of 'having,'" Ward's memo noted. "As yet our office does not have any Project 5000 properties cleared to sell for unsolicited bids."

When the Nose inquired about the memo, city officials expressed grave concern. They insisted that there are more than 2,000 properties for sale--but no one could provide us with a list of them.

According to Project 5000 director Michael Bainum, the city is still weeks away from taking its first bids from buyers. But Bainum's boss, assistant commissioner for land resources David Levy, says the city has indeed taken title to 2,250 houses under Project 5000 and sales are underway.

So which is it? No properties or 2,250? Levy explains the discrepancy this way: The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has agreed to give Project 5000 1,000 properties to sell, and the city has taken another 1,167 properties by eminent domain, which it added to the Project 5000 tally. That means that Project 5000, which is struggling to gain clear property titles through the time-consuming and difficult process of tax foreclosure, was given a big boost from the mayor's announcement. Levy estimates that "less than 50" houses had been taken by tax lien so far, but he stresses that new titles will start rolling in soon.

Meanwhile, Levy says, the city does have properties to sell and is taking bids and proposals for how to redevelop them.

Would-be Project 5000 customers are being directed to a list of city-owned properties linked to the Project 5000 Web site.

That list, which is more than 130 pages, includes many properties that are not for sale and excludes perhaps 1,000 (from the Housing Authority) that are for sale--or will be.

Housing experts praise Project 5000, and other cities are using the Baltimore program as a model, according to Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies director Sandra Newman. She praised the program in The Sun , saying Project 5000 is significant because of the large number of properties the city has taken. But, when told last week about the discrepancy in the property count, Newman said she was disappointed.

"What was done--that's totally unacceptable," she said, "because it's not an accurate representation of where we stand."

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