Like many other places across the country, Baltimore neighborhoods face challenges due to property abandonment. These problem properties are linked with increases in crime, illegal dumping, fire risks, economic loss, hopelessness, stress, fear, and a myriad of negative health outcomes. Property abandonment can seem an intractable and overwhelming problem, linked to many other large-scale challenges: long-term disinvestment and disempowerment as a result of both public and private action and inaction; racial and economic segregation; and pockets of deeply concentrated generational poverty where few can afford to maintain a home. While such places are often portrayed by outsiders as devoid of hope, among these vacant buildings reside longtime resident leaders who work tirelessly against the odds and meet the challenges they face as a community.
Long before the foreclosure crisis brought national attention to these problem properties, community leaders in Baltimore organized to deal with nuisance, vacant properties. One resource they had was Community Law Center. Founded in 1986, the center represents community associations and nonprofit entities throughout Maryland. Through community lawyering representing community associations, the center combines community organizing and a problem-solving approach to lawyering. With expertise and creativity, center attorneys fight the problem of property abandonment and use legal tools to help solve property problems identified by the community.
Neighborhood groups and their community lawyers are uniquely situated to remediate property problems holistically and find creative solutions by using legal tools that target those who profit by speculating on distressed communities. These speculators game the system and know that such neighborhoods are easy prey and residents are unlikely to be able to access the legal tools to redress property code violations.
Here I tell the story of how six community groups in Baltimore banded with Community Law Center and its partners to prove that one owner of vacant, abandoned properties could be held accountable. The center set three project goals: (1) setting a court precedent that could be used against other problem properties, (2) driving one of the worst property owners out of Baltimore, and (3) remedying the nuisance conditions in those properties.
Initial Steps: Connecting the Dots and Amending the Law
Inspired by countless community clients frustrated by the scale of property abandonment in Baltimore City, Community Law Center looked for an opportunity to do something on a larger scale and to test out a nuisance statute that the center had passed years earlier. After learning of an innovative public nuisance lawsuit in Cleveland in 2008, the center saw an opportunity and approached Baltimore Housing (the city housing department) and asked who the biggest problem property owner was in Baltimore City. The answer: Scott Wizig.
Investigations and Research into the Tax-Sale Underworld. Wizig had been known to pose a serious problem for the city and communities alike. Through a 2004 City Paper investigatory story, Community Law Center’s Project to End Predatory Real Estate, and countless client cases, Wizig’s name and the name of his various limited liability companies (collectively the defendants) were very familiar to the center. Baltimore Housing data given to the center showed how the defendants acquired, through tax-sale foreclosure, over 180 nuisance, vacant properties scattered throughout Baltimore City. The properties, although held by numerous limited liability companies, were linked through their common managing member, Wizig. Aside from scouring land records, housing code violations, and tax-sale records for that information, the center found that the most visible mark of a property owned by Wizig was an illegal yellow sign or banner declaring, “Investment Properties—No Credit Check—Owner Finance—No Prepayment Penalty” with a Texas phone number and a website: wizhomesllc.com.
Speculators such as the defendants can game this system to bolster their bottom line at every turn while ignoring and destabilizing neighborhoods.
To understand how the defendants operated is to understand tax-sale foreclosure and how it allowed them to profit at the expense of the communities. An arcane and complex process, tax-sale foreclosure essentially privatizes collection by allowing private investors to collect on real property taxes and other municipal liens tied to a property. Speculators such as the defendants can game this system to bolster their bottom line at every turn while ignoring and destabilizing neighborhoods. The defendants could reap an 18 percent interest rate on the taxes due when owners and interested parties wanted to save the properties from foreclosure. If neither the owners nor the interested parties could come up with the funds to save a property, then the defendants acquired the property through foreclosure. The defendants could acquire properties for the cost of the taxes due, which could sometimes be as little as $250. After acquiring the properties, the defendants sold those properties for much more—$10,000 or $20,000—still a seemingly low price for a house but well above the average acquisition price of $4,900 and the average assessed value of a vacant house: $3,000. The defendants or their related entities handled the financing for these home purchases; thus they earned interest on the financing instruments. The buyers who purchased properties from the defendants were often inexperienced investors who would probably not qualify for traditional financing—indeed, the signs on the properties promised “no credit check.” These buyers were not likely to understand the costs of making the property habitable, the depressed real estate market, or the financing product itself. These factors combined to make the buyers’ success in occupying, redeveloping, or reselling the property nearly impossible. When the buyers faltered on their payments, the defendants would foreclose on the property yet again, restarting the vicious cycle.
Meanwhile, the community suffered while the property fell into further disrepair. Baltimore Housing code enforcement efforts, with fewer resources due to declines in the tax base and federal funding, could not keep up with the large number of housing violations throughout the city. Many of the properties owned by the defendants were not in priority code enforcement areas or were in areas where the city itself owned vacant properties. Even where the defendants lost a property or faced large city fines and penalties for failing to maintain their properties, the defendants eluded city code enforcement, probably because simply paying the fines and penalties made better business sense—and higher profits—than bringing the properties up to code.
The Community Bill of Rights. The 2008 lawsuit in Cleveland had faced standing challenges; Community Law Center knew it had to ensure that its clients had standing to bring the lawsuit. Establishing client standing would be easier in Baltimore than in Cleveland because the center had successfully lobbied in 1996 for Maryland to adopt the “Community Bill of Rights” to give Baltimore City neighborhood organizations standing to bring a lawsuit to remedy public nuisances and code violations.
Before the adoption of the Community Bill of Rights, only private individuals and government agencies could successfully bring such an action; associations, whose members were harmed by nuisance conditions in their neighborhoods, lacked standing. Many private homeowners were low-income and lacked access to legal services; even if they were able to bring an action, the associated costs were often prohibitive and would far outstrip any one neighbor’s damages. City agencies lacked resources to stop the nuisances and did not always engage the community and prioritize the same problem houses the community wanted fixed. Despite there being a right of private action and a right of public action, neither right did much to achieve Community Law Center’s and its clients’ purposes, which included bringing the neighborhood residents together and empowering them with innovative legal tools for them to work together to solve problems in their community.
The Original Community Bill of Rights and Its Limitations. Although passing the original Community Bill of Rights was a great victory, certain compromises took place as in many legislative victories. A few of those compromises became the key challenges for communities using the Community Bill of Rights, and no case ever made it to court under the original Community Bill of Rights.
First, and perhaps the most problematic restriction, the original Community Bill of Rights excluded boarded vacant buildings from actions. Even when the vacant buildings were boarded, the boards often did not stay intact, and the boarded vacant properties were often the most problematic properties in the neighborhood. Under the local Building Code, however, boarding was allowed only as a temporary measure while the owner was rehabbing the building and did not relieve the owner of the obligation to maintain the property free and clear of other nuisance conditions, such as debris, high grass and weeds, broken windows, or a falling roof or collapsing porch. Instead of being a temporary measure, the boards became, and continue to be in many areas, the community’s permanent public face.
Second, the original Community Bill of Rights set certain administrative and financial burdens that made it hard for many groups to bring an action. The definition of a community association was very narrow and hard to meet. Groups had to be composed of a certain number of households and a certain percentage of dues-paying members. For neighborhoods with a large percentage of vacancies and low-income or transient households, maintaining a large roster of such members, while a best practice, often proves difficult. This is especially true in the current climate of fewer community-organizing resources for small neighborhoods, alongside demographic shifts and over-incarceration that have led to fewer young people being engaged in traditional neighborhood association activities. Moreover, the original Community Bill of Rights required community associations to file a bond with the court to guard against actions filed in bad faith. For community associations with small budgets, often less than $500 a year, filing a bond was an onerous burden.
Amending the Community Bill of Rights. With reducing these barriers in mind, Community Law Center set about amending the Community Bill of Rights to minimize the burdens on community plaintiffs bringing an action. Legislators, who receive countless complaints about problem properties, were more than happy to help amend the law to fix such burdens.
Most important, the amendments struck the provision excluding boarded vacant properties from being actionable and removed the onerous bond provision from the law. Community associations also would no longer have to be composed of a certain number or percentage of dues-paying households. While Community Law Center continues to recommend, as a best practice, that community associations engage a broad and diverse membership, composed of as many residents as possible, removing this membership number or percentage requirement allows a larger number of community groups to take advantage of the law and reduces some of the administrative burdens on smaller groups that could prove difficult in discovery.
Community Law Center worked with Baltimore City to support the bill, which maintained its provision requiring notice to the city of a lawsuit and the additional caveat that the city may prevent the suit if a property is part of an active code enforcement plan. The center testified on behalf of the amendments, with many of the center’s clients submitting letters urging passage of the amendments. Enjoying broad support from legislators, and minimal opposition from the property-owner lobby, the amendments unanimously passed through both houses and were signed into law in 2012.
From Legislation to Litigation: Bringing the Lawsuit and Building Community
With the amended Community Bill of Rights in place, Community Law Center went about pulling together the communities that were willing to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit. Some groups had been involved in submitting testimony in support of the Community Bill of Rights amendments, but not all of those were harmed by the defendants’ properties. After extensive outreach to all the community associations that could be affected by the defendants’ properties, the neighborhoods that ultimately joined the suit were primarily the ones that had long-term relationships with the center and knew from experience how using the law to access justice could complement and bolster their efforts to improve their neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were also the ones led by experienced community leaders, some of whom knew one another from past efforts and were effective, well-trained organizers who understood the value of working together.
Community Law Center knew how to avoid the disempowering effects of litigation, but doing so demanded conscientious efforts every step of the way.
For Community Law Center, where most of the work is transactional, taking on a major litigation is a challenge. Transactional matters lend themselves to community-led work because the lawyer is often in a background and advisory role. In litigation the lawyer plays a central role, and in court the lawyer must substitute the lawyer’s voice for the client’s voice by arguing on the client’s behalf. Litigation can drain valuable, limited resources from a community and can require little client input in strategic decisions, which often involve very technical and procedural questions alienating most nonlawyers. Litigation is slow and lengthy, can seem arcane, and is often unpredictable. Bringing a lawsuit without disempowering affected neighborhoods requires thoughtful engagement with such challenges from the very beginning of the lawsuit. Long a believer in using every legal tool in the toolbox, the center knew how to avoid the disempowering effects of litigation, but doing so demanded conscientious efforts every step of the way.
Bringing Communities Together. From the very beginning of the client engagement, bringing a lawsuit required Community Law Center to step outside its typical practice with community clients. Usually a community identifies one problem property in its neighborhood, and the center works with that community to use the law to solve the problem. While this strategy serves one community well by empowering it to identify and prioritize where it wants to ply its resources, this strategy does not always work as well in connecting the dots between communities, especially those separated by geography. From time to time a community might bring to the center a problem property associated with the defendants, but one neighborhood would not know that the same defendants presented a problem for a neighborhood across town. This one-by-one approach also made it difficult to help clients overwhelmed by the sheer number of problem properties to know where to begin and how to prioritize the work.
In this case Community Law Center connected the dots, bringing the plaintiffs together and showing them how the same owners had problem properties across numerous communities. Some communities responded that the properties owned by the defendants were not very high on their priority list. Nor did they want to drain their limited, valuable resources into such a risky endeavor as litigation. Some of the attorneys feared that by having the center identify the problem and do much of the investigation, communities might become too reliant on the center and would no longer do their own investigation. This would be a much more top-down approach than the center’s typical bottom-up approach to issues. The communities might not take ownership because an outsider was bringing them the identified problem and proposed solution, and this went against the community-organizing model.
Community Law Center connected the dots, bringing the plaintiffs together and showing them how the same owners had problem properties across numerous communities.
Such fears turned out to be unfounded, however, as several communities readily understood the broader goals of the lawsuit. The clients who signed on had past successes with Community Law Center pioneering other types of actions, including shutting down problematic liquor establishments, shutting down houses distributing illegal narcotics, and removing illegally installed payphones and billboards. This history of incremental successes created trust and a solid foundation. Because they understood the value in pioneering a precedent, these communities knew they would be paving the way for other neighborhoods. They trusted the center to bring resources that would limit the burdens on the communities engaged in the lawsuit. Indeed, the center brought immense resources to the table through its partnership with funders at the Abell Foundation, pro bono attorneys at Venable, student attorneys at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Clinic, experts, partners at Baltimore Housing, interns, and volunteers. As longtime clients of the center, the communities that became plaintiffs had developed sufficient trust in the center to know it was not really an outsider coming into the neighborhood and telling them what to do; they recognized that the center was with them in their struggle, looking for creative ways to tackle the problem properties the communities had long discussed at countless community meetings. The plaintiff communities were willing to take a risk in the hope of setting a precedent for battling other problem properties. They knew that with such a seemingly intractable problem as vacant properties, communities had to start somewhere, and this litigation was a good opportunity to target one of the largest owners of vacant properties across the entire city.
Engaging the Communities’ Voice. Litigation centers on attorneys arguing for a client, making it difficult for clients to speak for themselves, a touchstone of organizing. Central to the complaint and key substantive motions were affidavits and arguments using community voices. Indeed, some of the most compelling evidence and arguments came from those who lived next door to the properties and had lived in fear as a result of the neglect of those properties. While procedural and discovery arguments require attorneys to use technical language, talking to the press has fewer restrictions. While treading very carefully to ensure no legal arguments were compromised, Community Law Center made extra efforts to include community leaders' voices in press releases relating to the case. Many compelling stories, both in Baltimore and in Wizig’s hometown of Houston came out, shining a light on the defendants’ practices and their consequences. By publicly announcing and celebrating several key victories along the way—filing the initial complaint, winning partial summary judgment, following the defendants into bankruptcy as creditors, and ultimately reaching a settlement—the communities stayed actively engaged and energized by the litigation.
Central to the complaint and key substantive motions were affidavits and arguments using community voices.
As the lawsuit dragged through discovery, postponements, procedural arguments, and bankruptcy, Community Law Center also faced the challenge of keeping the communities and their residents actively engaged and understanding the status of the lawsuit and how it affected their neighborhoods. To do so, community lawyers, sometimes joined by pro bono or student attorneys, set a regular schedule to attend community meetings at least twice a year to update the communities on the status of the lawsuit. At these meetings the attorneys first introduced the case and explained its three overarching goals for any new members and then gave a quick history of the case, simplifying all the legalese so that members could better understand where they were in the process. This also gave members a sense of hope and action—they were not waiting for someone else to do something in their neighborhood; they were all part of an ambitious effort to tackle vacant properties in their neighborhood and beyond. At the same time the attorneys took care to manage expectations and stressed the unpredictability inherent in litigation. This engagement work also helped educate leaders and members alike on the legal process and some of the policy issues, such as tax-sale foreclosure, connected to problem properties. The community leaders met on a semiregular basis to make strategic decisions with cocounsel. Because the attorneys were regularly engaged with the leaders and the residents, the community voice always played a central role in the litigation.
Uniting Common Interests Across Boundaries. Working with multiple community clients presents conflict-of-interest challenges. Initially the cocounsel had some strategic and thoughtful discussion about different ways of bringing the complaint—by community or by property. Pro bono cocounsel at Venable had the wisdom to suggest bringing the case as one complaint, touching all properties and all communities. This approach was the most strategic and manageable. From a community-lawyering perspective, this approach had the advantage of pulling everyone in together and uniting the plaintiffs. Guided by some experiences in equitable development and other coalition work, Community Law Center carefully drafted a common-interest agreement and implemented a conflicts waiver. But by making sure the group of clients regularly convened to talk over decisions in the case, no conflicts ever arose. Each neighborhood made its own decisions about anything affecting only its community, but the neighborhoods worked together to make decisions that affected the entire case. The communities remained remarkably united against the defendants throughout the lawsuit. They knew from experience that sticking together against a common enemy built power, and they knew moving forward in consensus made their case stronger.
As experienced organizers, they saw the power of everyone working together rather than one neighborhood working at a time.
The clients remained united in reaching a settlement of the lawsuit in summer 2015. The settlement required that the defendants invest in rehabilitation, demolition, and maintenance of properties as well as pay $85,000. This settlement set precedent in the city, achieved one of the initial stated goals, and showed that communities in Baltimore could reverse the tide of disinvestment in neighborhoods.
Over the course of the representation, the communities grew increasingly appreciative of working with one another as they regularly attended meetings and saw the value in getting together. They enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share lessons and supported one another in improving their communities. When the lawsuit was settled (although settlement enforcement work continues), the communities wanted to continue to meet and work with Community Law Center and share the lessons learned. Keeping these groups together teaches a valuable lesson about the power of community lawyering and how it ripples outward.
Continuing the Momentum Postsettlement and Taking on the Tax-Sale System
Community Law Center’s work on vacant properties began to expand beyond legislation and litigation. Two center projects grew from the lawsuit and drew lessons from the lawsuit. One project is a new community-driven coalition arising from the settlement and a need for a greater community voice on the issues of vacant properties. The other project involves tax-sale-foreclosure reform and stems from a recognition that the tax-sale system itself exacerbated the problems of nuisance, vacant properties. While both projects remain works in progress, they show great promise and have already accomplished a lot.
Forming a Bold New Community Coalition. The timing of the settlement, in summer 2015, coincided with some of the many local discussions following the Baltimore uprising. Reflecting on the progress in the vacant-properties case, the community plaintiffs discussed the neighborhoods that did not join the case but had been harmed by the defendants’ actions. While those neighborhoods varied in their reasons for not joining the case, many simply lacked the organizational capacity to bring a lawsuit. Even though the plaintiff communities did not have much, they were mindful of many of their neighboring communities which had even less than they did, and so they wanted to share the lessons from the lawsuit and from their work together. They knew that they had accomplished something monumental and that it was only the beginning of a much broader effort. As experienced organizers, they saw the power of everyone working together rather than one neighborhood working at a time. The communities in the case became even more dedicated, redoubling their efforts by putting a portion of the settlement funds back to Community Law Center to hire a community organizer to begin work to form a citywide coalition, Baltimore Residents Engaged in Neighborhood Empowerment and Well-being (Baltimore RENEW), to curb vacant and abandoned properties.
Baltimore RENEW uses the grassroots power of an alliance of Baltimore City residents, community associations, and business owners to eliminate nuisance, vacant properties in neighborhoods.
Baltimore RENEW uses the grassroots power of an alliance of Baltimore City residents, community associations, and business owners to eliminate nuisance, vacant properties in neighborhoods. Last fall Community Law Center announced a meeting of all those interested in stopping such properties and reserved a space for 30 people. Nearly overnight more than 70 community leaders replied that they would attend the meeting. Center lawyers worked with the resident leaders from the vacant-properties lawsuit in organizing the alliance. Each meeting draws a diverse cross-section of the city and, with feedback from the prior meeting, aims to empower community leaders with the tools and information to take on problem properties. Besides giving resources, the alliance hopes to be a unifying voice on policy issues on vacant properties. Using settlement funds and some other resources, the center hired a community engagement coordinator last spring. While still early, the alliance’s future looks bright as the alliance paves a new way for neighborhoods to tackle together problem properties throughout the city.
Reforming the Tax-Sale System. The vacant-properties litigation required Community Law Center to delve into the complex structure of tax sales to understand the defendants’ practices better. In looking for others who understood the system, the center reinvigorated its membership in the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition. The coalition works to preserve and strengthen homeownership and promote neighborhood stability by preventing foreclosures, reducing abusive real estate practices, and increasing homeownership education to ensure sound borrowing choices and long-term financial success. With the coalition lending its superb expertise in the world of foreclosure advocacy, the center formed a tax-sale study group in spring 2013. As the study group kept discovering more problems on the tax-sale system, the study group evolved into a regular work group.
Drawing on communities’ experience in uniting around an issue, the tax-sale work group united homeowner advocates—legal aid lawyers, housing counselors, and consumer protection advocates—and community advocates who saw tax sales’ destabilizing force. The tax-sale work group recognized that an ounce of prevention (keeping people in their homes) is worth a pound of cure (redeveloping vacant properties, often in a depressed market that has fallen into a cycle of speculation).
The tax-sale work group created these initiatives to help homeowners facing tax sale:
- a low-interest loan program for homeowners to pay off tax bills;
- a program to promote the tax credit that can keep low-income homeowners from facing a tax sale;
- a regular spring clinic to connect homeowners facing a tax sale with resources, brief advice, and pro bono representation;
- a training for pro bono attorneys to defend homeowners in a tax sale;
- a website to connect homeowners with information and resources;
- a report calling attention to the problems homeowners face in a tax sale; and
- key legislative efforts significantly reducing owner-occupied properties in a tax sale.
As the tax-sale work group enjoyed more success, Baltimore City government began taking a more active role in the tax-sale issue. First, the city began to replicate some of the public education on tax sales. Along with the work group, the city’s Department of Finance, which operates the annual tax sale, submitted a successful proposal to the Center for Community Progress’ Technical Assistance Scholarship Program to overhaul key systems to help vulnerable homeowners, collect revenue, and return vacant properties to productive use. The Center for Community Progress’ report is scheduled for release this fall, and the work group looks forward to implementing its recommendations.
While the communities move forward in litigating against irresponsible owners such as the defendants, advocates must work upstream to change the laws and policies that perpetuate problem properties. Whether that involves expanding nuisance standing or reforming tax sales, such work requires creativity and ambition. Community Law Center’s project shows the strength and value of community lawyering. It shows the importance of developing and maintaining strong and deep ties in neighborhoods where most residents distrust the legal community and of rebuilding that trust by working with neighborhoods to seize the power to exert their rights.