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opinion

Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

At first glance, it seems like an earnest attempt to address one of the most troubling issues plaguing many North American cities: What to do with abandoned houses in chronically tough neighbourhoods?

A new program by the City of Baltimore is offering 200 vacant houses it owns for sale for US$1 – that’s right, one dollar – to local residents who promise to fix them up.

It may not sound like much for a city of almost 600,000 people, but it has the sheen of a promising start. Baltimore has an estimated 13,000 vacant homes, and the city owns about 1,000 of them.

In reality, however, the program is something of a Hail Mary pass, with little chance of those it claims it wants to help catching the ball.

Like so many government programs launched under the code name “Good Intentions,” this one is a thinly veiled too-good-to-be-true version of the old urban renewal model with the potential to disrupt – not rejuvenate – neighbourhoods and displace the residents it claims to benefit.

The implications go well beyond Baltimore. City governments in the U.S. and Canada are scrambling to address acute housing shortages, and these types of inner-city rehabilitation programs are often seen as quick-fix shortcuts.

The issue is not insignificant. Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance firm, estimates the U.S. is short about four million housing units, The situation is worse in Canada. The Fraser Institute estimates 5.8 million new homes are required nationwide to restore some semblance of affordability by 2030, but Canada is currently on track to build less than half that.

Here’s the rub of programs like Baltimore’s. Most of the houses in the program are in the most “stressed” neighbourhoods of the city, which consistently rank among the most dangerous in the country in terms of crime.

They need a lot of work, not just to have the basic comforts of home but to be safe as well. Many of these houses are in such bad condition they pose serious risks for city service workers, including emergency crews of police and firefighters.

While the city has pledged to offer construction loans of as much as US$50,000 to individuals or land trusts who qualify, there is widespread concern among the program’s opponents that not enough people will meet the requirements or be willing to take on debt.

The offer is open only to residents, who have 90 days to decide. If they pass on the deal or fail to qualify for the loans, the properties can then be bought by outsiders or by developers for just US$3,000 apiece.

You don’t need to be a skilled skeptic to recognize that offering a once-in-a-lifetime deal to someone who can’t afford to take advantage of it is really no deal at all. And the default that opens the doors to those who can after only three months might smell like the ultimate – though unsaid – objective anyway.

Whether or not offering the right of first refusal to residents is an exercise in covering your administration, critics say the potential disruption of the composition of these neighbourhoods if outsiders and especially developers roll in is a troubling consequence.

House prices will rise, infrastructure will blossom to serve the reconstituted neighbourhoods, and the city’s tax coffers will fill up accordingly. Those who can’t afford to stay will be squeezed out.

“If affordability and affordable home ownership and equity and all of the nice words we like to use are really at the core competency as it relates to property disposition, this is a really bad policy … because it doesn’t protect or prioritize the rights of folks in these communities,” Baltimore City Council president Nick Mosby said.

At least communities in Europe that have implemented programs similar to Baltimore’s are upfront about their intentions. For years, several towns in Italy facing declining populations and rising vacancies have offered abandoned houses for sale for one euro, with the sole objective of attracting outsiders.

Their programs typically have no pretense of giving locals the right of first refusal. The hope is that wealthy Europeans and North Americans seeking vacation or retirement properties will be tempted by the near-giveaway pricing and bring their fat wallets with them to renovate the homes and infuse some life into the local economies.

There is no silver-bullet solution to this problem, but at the very least places like Baltimore might stop trying to window dress their programs and call them what they are. Like any deal that seems too good to be true, this one has the potential to hurt as many people as it helps.

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