(Photo credit: Nneka Nnamdi)

By Nneka Nnamdi and Sean Yoes

The tragic death of three Baltimore City Firefighters: firefighter/paramedic Kelsey Sadler, EMT/firefighter Kenny Lacayo and Lt. Paul Butrim (firefighter John McMaster was also critically injured, but survived), the morning of Jan. 25, while battling a blaze at a vacant house in the 200 block of S. Stricker Street, refocused harsh light on the decades-old dilemma of vacant houses in Baltimore.

“This is a gut-wrenching tragedy for our city, the Baltimore City Fire Department, and most importantly the families of our firefighters,” said Mayor Brandon Scott in a statement. 

Mayor Scott ordered a city-wide review of all vacant housing operations, procedures and processes in the wake of the tragedy. However, vacant house fires have been a recurring theme in Baltimore for many years. In fact, that same house on Stricker Street that collapsed and killed those three firefighters, also caught fire in 2015, and three more firefighters were injured, fortunately they all survived. For decades the proliferation of vacants in Baltimore has led to scores of firefighters being killed or injured.

Vacants are violent. And they beget violence. 

Of 58 locations where homicides were reported (as of March 3) in 2022, 29 have taken place at or near a property with a Vacant Building Notice (VBN), a tax lien or a demolition; this is a fact, not a coincidence. And, it’s the result of extractive and exploitative economic policies targeted at Black communities creating concentrated vacancy, poverty, trauma. 

Just as vacant houses fuel blight (and all the ills associated with it), Baltimore’s decrepit tax sale system constantly replenishes the city’s monstrous vacant house inventory (there are currently 14,973 vacant houses in Baltimore and 1,232 are owned by the City according to Tammy D. Hawley, Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development).

From the Baltimore City “Tax Sale Information” website:

The City of Baltimore holds an annual tax lien certificate sale. The tax sale is used to collect delinquent real property taxes and other unpaid charges owed to the City, …… It is a public, online auction of City lien interests on properties. The highest bidder in the auction pays the total amount of the property liens to the City and receives a tax sale certificate from the City which gives the bidder the right to obtain ownership of the property by filing a tax sale foreclosure lawsuit.

This year’s tax sale list added almost 700 properties, going from 3,823 owner occupied units in 2021, to 4,513 in 2022. The increase could be attributed to multiple factors, with perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic at the top of the list. The cause(s) of the increase can be debated. However, some of the smartest people inside and outside of City Hall, with expansive knowledge of how Baltimore’s extremely complicated, antiquated tax sale operates agree on two things: it is racist and it needs to be abolished. 

I’ve been working on this tax sale issue since…2012, something like that. As advocates we’ve been chipping away at what is just a racist theft of property racket, said Claudia Wilson Randall, executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, a community development advocacy organization.  That’s how the system is built and that’s what it’s supposed to do. Also it’s a very expedient way for the city to get cash, added Wilson Randall.

These are systems…they were put in place to move people. When you didn’t want Black people living here, you took property. We see it work…it’s happening in Baltimore….it’s happening in New York, it’s happening in Detroit. This is how the system was made.

History corroborates Wilson-Randall’s blunt assessment.

During the Jim Crow era, local White officials routinely manipulated property tax assessments to overburden and punish Black populations and as a hidden tax break to landowning White gentry, said University of Virginia historian Andrew Kahrl, in a story written by Andrew Van Dam, and published in The Washington Post July 2, 2020.

And when those overburdened, poorer Black property owners have succumbed to a convoluted, inherently racist tax sale system like the one in Baltimore, it typically meant Big Momma’s House was gone forever. Working within a broader White supremacist governance model, the property tax system has proven to be incredibly effective at extracting Black wealth and redistributing it into White hands. 

Tax sale is a process that was designed 100 years ago at a time when there were a lot of efforts being made in public policy to keep certain groups, typically people of color, out of financial opportunities, said Dan Ellis, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, a city agency created to increase sustainable home ownership.  

“So it was designed to take wealth away from communities of color and put it into the pockets of wealthy, typically White people. And while there are no direct connections within legislation to race, the impact of tax sale has been very much disproportionately absorbed by people of color, typically African Americans in Baltimore, Ellis added. The impacts of that are still being felt today and are going to be felt until we reform this system.”

Still, Ellis, who has led NHS for a decade, is encouraged by the work the Scott administration is doing to reform the current corrupt system. 

“In my experience and interaction with this administration I haven’t gotten any roadblocks or major pushback for significant reform efforts,” he said. “And I am more confident than I have been with any other administration that comprehensive reform is going to happen before the first term of this mayor is over. We’ve made incremental changes to a corrupt system over the last 10 years and before that, and we’ve made improvements to it,” Ellis added. 

“But, we’re at a point that we need to throw the system away and start over.”

Tragically, for thousands of Black Baltimoreans who lost their homes or loved ones to violence – vacancy and street – that consumes once proud communities, that racist tax sale system, virulently crafted to extract Black wealth should have been thrown away many years ago. After all, it’s a killer. 

Nneka Nnamdi is founder and COO of Fight Blight Bmore and co-creator of the Stop Oppressive Seizures Fund. Sean Yoes is the managing editor of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative’s Global Newsroom and former AFRO Baltimore editor and columnist.

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO. Send letters to The Afro-American • 145 W. Ostend Street Ste 600, Office #536, Baltimore, MD 21230 or fax to 1-877-570-9297 or e-mail to editor@afro.com

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