Baltimore Ordinance Concerning Vacant Structures Signed by Mayor

On January 25, The Baltimore Sun published an article titled City to take earlier, more aggressive approach to abandoned houses.

City to take earlier, more aggressive approach to abandoned houses

Past the manicured lawns and tidy red brick rowhomes along Stonewood Road in Baltimore’s New Northwood neighborhood sits one house that shows the ravages of years of neglect..

A faded and weathered garland from two, perhaps three, Christmases gone by coils around the front railing, and a strip of gutter ripped from the decorative cornice along the roof’s edge lies precariously atop the covered porch.

Councilman Bill Henry says neighbors call City Hall regularly to complain and to plead with officials to force the owner to fix the place up. But so far, the city’s efforts have been fruitless. Notices hang from the front doorknob; more sit unattended behind the screen door. (Attempts by The Baltimore Sun to reach the owner of the house also were unsuccessful.)

But Henry thinks the city has found a solution.

A law set to take effect next month will allow Baltimore officials to take over an abandoned home earlier than currently allowed, when an empty property begins to show signs of neglect but before it has a chance to fall into the level of disrepair that risks dragging down the entire neighborhood.

The law, sponsored by Henry, approved by the City Council and signed last week by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is the city’s latest tool against the 16,000 vacant properties that blight the landscape — leftovers from an era when the population was nearly twice as large, and magnets for the crime that for many defines Baltimore. Many believe that the city cannot move ahead until it solves the problem; Rawlings-Blake has made it a policy priority.

Advocates for property rights warn that such laws could be abused by officials eager to gentrify neighborhoods.

To Henry, the law gives communities a fighting chance.

“It is a war against blight,” he said. “You really have to fight blight like it is an enemy force. You have to put up defenses. You have to make sure you can flank it. You have to make sure you don’t get outflanked by it.”

Under current law, the city won’t force the sale of an abandoned house unless the windows and doors are broken or left open, allowing people and pests to come and go freely, or unless other damage is so severe that the property is unsafe.

The new law expands the circumstances in which the city may begin that process. For most of the houses in question, the clock will start when the city’s 311 hotline fields the first complaint of neglect — a dilapidated front porch, for example, or trash piling up among tall weeds.

Housing inspectors have generally responded to such complaints by writing up notices and issuing fines. But officials say that often didn’t solve the problem.

Under the new law, when the owner of a problem property ignores repeated notices to keep up a home, the city can petition a district court to force a sale.
 
Officials expect only a couple of hundred unoccupied houses to fall into this new category. In most cases, they say, the home will have been abandoned because the owner died. But they say the impact will be felt widely, because the effect abandoned properties can have on communities is far-reaching.

On a recent day, crews from the Department of Public Works, armed with a list of vacant properties, made stops in East and West Baltimore to board up houses. All of them met current city definitions.

City employees David Johnson Jr. and Clyde Crawford tugged on the front door of a house in the 1200 block of James St. in Pigtown to check if it was locked. Then they went around back and were able to walk inside. They found glass shattered all over the kitchen floor and trash, clothing and a For Sale sign strewn about.

Upstairs, a woman slept on a thin mattress on the floor with a gray-and-white kitten snuggling beside her. In the next room, a man awoke, scurried down the steps and out the back door. Scattered on the floor were syringes and needles, pills and empty packs of cigarettes.

Johnson asked the woman to grab her belongings and leave the property.

“We greatly appreciate your cooperation,” he said.

The woman rolled up a brown sleeping bag, grabbed a Betty Boop purse and stuffed some clothes in a Price Rite shopping bag.

The woman swore and asked, “Do you know what time it is?”

Later she said, “The dude said this was his brother’s house.”

The woman listed on property records as the owner told The Sun that the bank had taken the house. She said she didn’t know the name of the bank and declined to comment further.

At the next stop, Johnson and Crawford cut pieces of plywood to fit over the windows and doors of a vacant house in the 300 block of Fulton Ave. in the Franklin Square neighborhood.
 
The owners couldn’t be reached for comment. A neighbor said a fire forced a family to abandon the house more than a year ago. Now, neighbor Roger Simpkins said, he worries about squatters “getting high and burning it up.”

Rawlings-Blake said the new law will help the city respond more effectively to community complaints and will keep neighborhoods stronger.

“It is a real-life problem for communities across our city to deal with having a blighted and unoccupied property, and because of a technicality we were not able to do anything about it,” she said. “If it doesn’t make sense, you have to figure out a better way to do it.”

Rawlings-Blake said the approach is one of several the city uses to address vacant houses. The city plans to spend about $13 million to stabilize or knock down such properties.

The city spends about $1 million annually to board up vacant houses. Officials plan to tear down about 600 between now and early next year.
 
Officials say they don’t know how much enforcement of the new law will cost. The houses in the new category won’t have to be boarded up, at least initially, the way typical vacants are, because they don’t have unsecured access; otherwise, they’d already be considered vacant.

Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value program identifies entire blocks slated for demolition and facilitates large-scale redevelopment in distressed communities. The administration says the initiative, unveiled in November 2010, has spurred the demolition or rehabilitation of 3,000 vacant houses and brought more than $107 million in private investment.

For some, images of entire city blocks lined with boarded-up houses have come to define Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake said she’s not concerned that the new law will add to the number of vacant houses on the books. She said it will help the city respond when a resident comes to officials and says, “The house next door is vacant, no one lives there, the paint is coming off the shutters, no one is collecting the mail.”

“There was very little for us to do,” she said.

Local landlords are studying the law.

“We certainly feel that it’s going to have an impact on our members, and investors in general, but we will have to review it in more detail to see exactly what the impact will be,” said Alan Chantker, president of the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Investors Association.

Tommy Tompsett, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said after a cursory review of the new law that it appeared unlikely to have much effect on landlords. He said the violations that would trigger the city to force a sale would also likely make a home uninhabitable, and unlikely to be rentable in the first place.
 
But Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., warned that the law could allow officials to make an “end run around eminent domain laws.” Such laws set limits on the government’s ability to acquire private property.

He advised officials to tread carefully.

“There is a huge potential for abuse, especially when there are developers who want to get their hands on the property and the city can resort to this instead of using eminent domain,” Rowes said.

The Constitution is clear in allowing governments to take properties that pose health and safety risks, Rowes said, but characterizing houses as nuisance properties is a gray area.

Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., said potential issues with Baltimore’s nuisance property law will come down to the way the City Council wrote the legislation and how officials enforce it.

“The City Council has an obligation to the community but also to the property owners, who have constitutional rights that need to be protected,” Wood said.

Henry, who introduced the legislation, said the city won’t use the law against property owners who keep their houses in good shape.

“This law is about protecting neighborhoods from irresponsible, absentee owners,” Henry said. “If you’re a responsible property owner, you will have absolutely no problem with this law. You just need one really bad house in the middle of a block, and you’ve just impacted the property values of 30 or 40 houses around it.”

Henry said the effect of abandoned properties on homes values citywide likely reaches millions of dollars.
 
Henry spoke of a neighbor who died a few years ago. He said he watched her home in the Radnor-Winston neighborhood of North Baltimore fall into disrepair. The property was put up for auction at an estate sale, but the high bid fell a few thousand dollars short of the $55,000 reverse mortgage she had on the property.

While the house sat empty, Henry said, a shutter smashed a third-story window during a storm, letting in the elements and animals, which caused further damage, Henry said. By the time the bank finally sold the house, he said, its value had fallen to $25,000.

The house never met the city’s definition of vacant, Henry said, despite being abandoned for years.

“That’s what got me, where I said, ‘Maybe we have to change the way we address this,'” Henry said. “It’s become more of a problem for more people.”

Once an unoccupied house is declared to be vacant or a nuisance property, Assistant Housing Commissioner Jason Hessler said, the city can petition the court to intervene through a process called receivership. That allows a third party to auction the property to a buyer who will redevelop it.

The average sale price for an auctioned house is about $20,000, although some sell for as little as $5,000. The money goes first to cover outstanding taxes and fees. Any remaining cash is given to mortgage companies and the original owner.

If the property doesn’t sell, the city can consider alternatives, including demolition.
 
Hessler said the city might issue violations for unoccupied houses based on exterior problems, such as a porch falling apart, gutters or downspouts missing, or shutters falling off. But until now, it hasn’t had the option of taking the owners to court under the receivership process.

“When owners walk away from the house, and it’s starting to rot, you can see it from these more minor violations from the outside,” Hessler said. “That is an indicator to us that there are additional problems.”

He said the new law “allows us to get to these properties before they rot all the way through.”

City officials think Ashburton in Northwest Baltimore is one neighborhood that stands to benefit from the new law: It’s a stable community with few vacants, but it occasionally sees a house abandoned by an owner who suffers financial challenges or health issues or dies.

Beatrice Scott, president of the Ashburton Area Association, called the new law “a very important move.”

“We wholeheartedly appreciate that,” she said. “Ashburton doesn’t sit still for a lot of neglect.”

Officials said Lake Evesham, Original Northwood and Belair-Edison are other examples of neighborhoods that could benefit from the new law.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he’s eager to see the city shed the vacant houses.

“We should go further and put some restrictions on how long a house can be vacant before we start just giving them away to developers and nonprofits,” Young said. “It’s sickening that they have been sitting for 10, some 15 years, and there should be some kind of cutoff.

“We have blocks of them. Let’s give them to developers — just give them to them.”

Please click here to view the article online.

Please click here to view Baltimore’s Ordinance Concerning Vacant Structures (Bill 13-0293).

About Safeguard 
Safeguard Properties is the mortgage field services industry leader, preserving vacant and foreclosed properties across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Guam. Founded in 1990 by Robert Klein and headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, Safeguard provides the highest quality service to our clients by leveraging innovative technologies and proactively developing industry best practices and quality control procedures. Consistent with Safeguard’s values and mission, we are an active supporter of hundreds of charitable efforts across the country. Annually, Safeguard gives back to communities in partnership with our employees, vendors and clients. We also are dedicated to working with community leaders and officials to eliminate blight and stabilize neighborhoods. Safeguard is dedicated to preserving today and protecting tomorrow.  Website: www.safeguardproperties.com.

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CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Alan Jaffa

Alan Jaffa is the chief executive officer for Safeguard, steering the company as the mortgage field services industry leader. He also serves on the board of advisors for SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Alan joined Safeguard in 1995, learning the business from the ground up. He was promoted to chief operating officer in 2002, and was named CEO in May 2010. His hands-on experience has given him unique insights as a leader to innovate, improve and strengthen Safeguard’s processes to assure that the company adheres to the highest standards of quality and customer service.

Under Alan’s leadership, Safeguard has grown significantly with strategies that have included new and expanded services, technology investments that deliver higher quality and greater efficiency to clients, and strategic acquisitions. He takes a team approach to process improvement, involving staff at all levels of the organization to address issues, brainstorm solutions, and identify new and better ways to serve clients.

In 2008, Alan was recognized by Crain’s Cleveland Business in its annual “40-Under-40” profile of young leaders. He also was named a NEO Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® finalist in 2013.

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Chief Operating Officer

Michael Greenbaum

Michael Greenbaum is the chief operating officer for Safeguard. Mike has been instrumental in aligning operations to become more efficient, effective, and compliant with our ever-changing industry requirements. Mike has a proven track record of excellence, partnership and collaboration at Safeguard. Under Mike’s leadership, all operational departments of Safeguard have reviewed, updated and enhanced their business processes to maximize efficiency and improve quality control.

Mike joined Safeguard in July 2010 as vice president of REO and has continued to take on additional duties and responsibilities within the organization, including the role of vice president of operations in 2013 and then COO in 2015.

Mike built his business career in supply-chain management, operations, finance and marketing. He has held senior management and executive positions with Erico, a manufacturing company in Solon, Ohio; Accel, Inc., a packaging company in Lewis Center, Ohio; and McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company in Aurora, Ohio.

Before entering the business world, Mike served in the U.S. Army, Ordinance Branch, and specialized in supply chain management. He is a distinguished graduate of West Point (U.S. Military Academy), where he majored in quantitative economics.

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CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER

George Mehok

George Mehok is the chief information officer for Safeguard. He is responsible for all strategic technology decisions, new systems deployments and data center operations supporting a national network of more than 10,000 mobile workers.

George has more than 20 years of leadership experience dedicated to high-growth companies in the mobile telecommunications and financial services industries, spanning startups to global industry leaders.

George played a senior role in the formation of Verizon Wireless, leading the IT product development and strategic planning team. He led the integration planning for the Verizon merger including: GTE, Vodafone-AirTouch, Bell Atlantic Mobile and PrimeCo.

As chief information officer at Revol Wireless, a VC-backed CDMA wireless communications network operator, George’s team implemented an integrated technology infrastructure and award-winning business intelligence platform.

George holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Eastern Michigan University and an M.B.A. from The Ohio State University. He is a board member of Akron University’s School of Business Center for Information Technology, in addition to an advisory board member for OHTec.

In 2013, George won the Crain’s Cleveland Business CIO of the Year award for his team’s work in completing a major acquisition and technology transformation at Safeguard. In 2015, George’s team was recognized by InformationWeek’s annual Elite 100 ranking of the most innovative U.S.-based users of business technology. The mobile inspection technology developed at Safeguard was selected as InformationWeek’s “One of the top 20 ideas to steal in 2015”.

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General Counsel and Executive Vice President

Linda Erkkila, Esq.

Linda Erkkila is the general counsel and executive vice president for Safeguard, with oversight responsibilities for the legal, human resources, training, compliance and audit departments. Linda’s broad scope of oversight covers regulatory issues that impact Safeguard’s operations, pro-active risk mitigation, enterprise strategic planning, human capital and training initiatives, compliance and audit services, litigation and claims management, and counsel related to mergers, acquisition and joint ventures.

Linda’s oversight of the legal department along with multiple compliance and human capital focused departments assures that Safeguard’s strategic initiatives align with its resources, leverage opportunities across the company, and contemplate compliance mandates. Her practice spans almost 20 years, and Linda’s experience, both as outside and in-house counsel, covers a wide range of corporate matters, including regulatory disclosure, corporate governance compliance, risk assessment, executive compensation, litigation management, and merger and acquisition activity. Her experience at a former Fortune 500 financial institution during the subprime crisis helped develop Linda’s pro-active approach to change management during periods of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

Linda previously served as vice president and attorney for National City Corporation, as securities and corporate governance counsel for Agilysys Inc., and as an associate at Thompson Hine LLP. She earned her JD at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Linda holds a degree in economics from Miami University and an MBA. In 2017, Linda was named as both a “Woman of Influence” by HousingWire and as a “Leading Lady” by MReport.

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Chief Financial Officer

Joe Iafigliola

Joe Iafigliola is the Chief Financial Officer for Safeguard. Joe is responsible for the Control, Quality Assurance, Business Development, Accounting & Information Security departments, and is a Managing Director of SCG Partners, a middle-market private equity fund focused on diversifying and expanding Safeguard Properties’ business model into complimentary markets.

Joe has been in a wide variety of roles in finance, supply chain management, information systems development, and sales and marketing. His career includes senior positions with McMaster-Carr Supply Company, Newell/Rubbermaid, and Procter and Gamble.

Joe has an MBA from The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), and holds a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University’s Honors Accounting program.

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AVP, Operations

Jennifer Jozity

Jennifer Jozity is the assistant vice president of operations, overseeing inspections, REO and property preservation for Safeguard. Jen ensures quality work is performed in the field and internally, to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations. Jen has demonstrated the ability to deliver consistent results in order audit and order management.  She will build upon these strengths in order to deliver this level of excellence in both REO and property preservation operations.

Jen joined Safeguard in 1997 and was promoted to director of inspections operations in 2009 and assistant vice president of inspections operations in 2012.

She graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in business.

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AVP, Finance

Jennifer Anspach

Jennifer Anspach is the assistant vice president of finance for Safeguard. She is responsible for the company’s national workforce of approximately 1,000 employees. She manages recruitment strategies, employee relations, training, personnel policies, retention, payroll and benefits programs. Additionally, Jennifer has oversight of the accounts receivable and loss functions formerly within the accounting department.

Jennifer joined the company in April 2009 as a manager of accounting and finance and a year later was promoted to director. She was named AVP of human capital in 2014. Prior to joining Safeguard, she held several management positions at OfficeMax and InkStop in both operations and finance.

Jennifer is a graduate of Youngstown State University. She was named a Crain’s Cleveland Business Archer Award finalist for HR Executive of the Year in 2017.

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AVP, Application Architecture

Rick Moran

Rick Moran is the assistant vice president of application architecture for Safeguard. Rick is responsible for evolving the Safeguard IT systems. He leads the design of Safeguard’s enterprise application architecture. This includes Safeguard’s real-time integration with other systems, vendors and clients; the future upgrade roadmap for systems; and standards designed to meet availability, security, performance and goals.

Rick has been with Safeguard since 2011. During that time, he has led the system upgrades necessary to support Safeguard’s growth. In addition, Rick’s team has designed and implemented several innovative systems.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Rick was director of enterprise architecture at Revol Wireless, a privately held CDMA Wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana, and operated his own consulting firm providing services to the manufacturing, telecommunications, and energy sectors.

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AVP, Technology Infrastructure and Cloud Services

Steve Machovina

Steve Machovina is the assistant vice president of technology infrastructure and cloud services for Safeguard. He is responsible for the overall management and design of Safeguard’s hybrid cloud infrastructure. He manages all technology engineering staff who support data centers, telecommunications, network, servers, storage, service monitoring, and disaster recovery.

Steve joined Safeguard in November 2013 as director of information technology operations.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was vice president of information technology at Revol Wireless, a privately held wireless provider in Ohio and Indiana. He also held management positions with Northcoast PCS and Corecomm Communications, and spent nine years as a Coast Guard officer and pilot.

Steve holds a BBA in management information systems from Kent State University in Ohio and an MBA from Wayne State University in Michigan.

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AVP, Business Development

Tim Rath

Tim Rath is the AVP of business development for Safeguard. He is responsible for developing innovative growth strategies for Safeguard and developing and overseeing potential partnerships, mergers and acquisitions.

Tim joined Safeguard in 2011 as project director and has filled numerous roles within Vendor Management, most recently serving as director of vendor management, a role he assumed in 2011.

Prior to Safeguard, Tim worked as director of supply chain at PartsSource Inc. in Aurora, Ohio, a provider of medical replacement parts, procurement solutions and healthcare supply chain management technology services. He also has held sales positions with Rexel, ComDoc, and Pier Associates, all based in Ohio.

Tim holds a degree in marketing and sales from The University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. He also earned his FAA Certified Commercial UAS (Drone) Pilot license in 2017.

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Assistant Vice president of Application Development

Steve Goberish

Steve Goberish, is the assistant vice president of application development for Safeguard. He is responsible for the maintenance and evolution of Safeguard’s vendor systems ensuring high-availability, security and scalability while advancing the vendor products’ capabilities and enhancing the vendor experience.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Steve was a senior technical architect and development manager at First American Title Insurance, a publicly held title insurance provider based in southern California, in addition to managing and developing applications in multiple sectors from insurance to VOIP.

Steve has a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University in Ohio.