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At Heated Meeting, Mortgage Provider Offers Vision For Baltimore's $1 Houses, Which Critics Call 'Nonsense'

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Baltimore City leaders Tuesday night brought forth legislation aimed to cut down on the sheer number of vacant homes in the city. Council President Nick Mosby's proposal includes a revival of the Dollar House program, in which vacant city-owned homes are sold for one dollar.

"If we don't do it now who will? If now is not the time when is the time? And that is what this legislation is built on is about ensuring that we're connecting our residents to pipelines of opportunity for homeownership," Mosby said.

The proposal brought dozens of supporters of the bill to City Hall, with people pouring out of overflow rooms and into hallways. The rally was led by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a Boston-based nonprofit mortgage provider that says its mission is to fight predatory lending.

NACA's mortgage offers "no down payment, no closing fees, low-interest rate no PMI loans to low to moderate-income people," according to its website. The organization's CEO, Bruce Marks, testified as a key witness on the bill.

Under Mosby's proposal, Baltimore's legacy residents, those who have lived in Baltimore for more than a decade, would be eligible for the Dollar House program. Recipients of the program would receive a $50,000 grant from the city for renovations under a repair grant bill, and the nonprofit would provide a low-interest loan to pay the mortgage.

Marks singled out Mayor Brandon Scott as the opposition to the advancement of the bill. He accused the mayor and Councilwoman Odette Ramos of working for real estate developers. 

"Sir, you cannot accuse me of that," Ramos called to Marks over the banging of Mosby's gavel. "You're not from here, sir, you don't even know, you don't even know."

Councilman Ryan Dorsey walked out during the session.

"I left tonight's hearing early because it was an embarrassment I wasn't going to dignify by participating," Dorsey said in a tweet. "Baltimore deserves so much better than to have our time wasted and intelligence insulted with astroturf nonsense. We have plenty else to do."

Councilman Zeke Cohen said the plan didn't make any financial sense, saying there would be little return on investment after renovating a vacant.

"It would require massive renovations, these are primarily shells and they are surrounded by other vacants, so the concern that we've had is that if you put, lets say $150,000 to $200,000 into renovating one of these things it might be worth, I don't know, $80,000 to $100,000 which would mean you would be underwater," Cohen said. 

Marks led the rally straight to Scott's office while the council was in session and banged on the metal door, telling the crowd the mayor had refused to meet with his organization to talk about the program.

"Frankly, the Council President's legislation does not match the Mayor's vision for meaningful policy and programs designed to help our communities or even come close," said Scott's spokesperson, James Bentley. "This legislation appears more harmful than helpful."

Bentley said the nonprofit had never requested a meeting with Scott until Tuesday night.

According to Cohen, the mayor wasn't in the building, but an elderly woman was in the office and scared by the commotion.

Cohen called Marks' NACA product "questionable at best."

Last month, Mayor Scott pledged $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to address vacant properties. The investment included funding for capital investments, blight elimination and prevention, and resident protection, but does not steer toward the dollar home program.

"Baltimore residents need real transformational change, not more pie in the sky," Bentley said in a statement. "Mayor Scott has proven his commitment to addressing vacant properties and creating opportunities for residents in traditionally underserved communities to become homeowners."

The bill was voted on last month and ended in a 7-7 tie, with one absent vote. The city council did not vote on it nor did they schedule to vote on it Tuesday night. Some members tell me there will likely be another hearing to discuss the bill further.

Mosby's proposal is one of several efforts to crack down on the dangers posed by the roughly 15,000 vacant properties in Baltimore after a collapse at a vacant house killed three firefighters in January.

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