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Commentaryby David A. Plymyer7:11 amSep 5, 20230

IG report on bribes at Baltimore’s housing department helps clarify the importance of a land bank

The discovery that DHCD has a “culture of acceptance” of gifts to inspectors tells us all we need to know about whether it should continue to be entrusted to solve Baltimore’s vacant house crisis [OP-ED]

Above: Vacant houses on Pontiac Street in South Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood. (Fern Shen)

We recently learned something stunning about Baltimore City government thanks to an investigation by Inspector General Isabel Cumming:

One of its biggest agencies, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), lacks a formal policy on how its building inspectors must respond when offered bribes or gifts from third parties.

Cumming told The Brew that her agents “kept hearing the same stories – cash in envelopes and free lunches for inspectors.”

They “learned that there was a culture of acceptance in the department as long as the bribe was under a certain dollar amount,” with $50 most frequently cited as the limit.

Accepting bribes isn’t permitted in Baltimore, housing commissioner says (8/23/23)

It is disappointing, although hardly surprising, to hear that yet another city agency is so poorly managed.

On the other hand, the IG’s report could be a blessing in disguise, as it should put to rest Mayor Brandon Scott’s rationale for opposing Councilwoman Odette Ramos’ proposal to establish a city land bank.

The purpose of the land bank is to confront one of the city’s greatest challenges – the plague of vacant houses.

Tens of thousands of empty and abandoned buildings render some neighborhoods almost unlivable and threaten the economic vitality and social stability of the entire city.

How can we expect DHCD to solve this enormous problem if it cannot even conduct basic functions central to its mission  – enforcing building, housing and other infrastructure codes – properly and professionally?

Sloppy? Or Worse?

For reasons that now escape me, I journeyed to Madison, Wisconsin, in the dead of winter for nine years in the 1990s to help teach a course for building code officials and inspectors at the University of Wisconsin on a pro-bono basis.

The accepted best practice was then, and remains now, a written policy strictly prohibiting building inspectors from accepting gifts of any value and requiring them to immediately report bribe offers to their supervisors.

I recall some quibbling when it came to gifts of nominal value, like pens and baseball caps with a contractor’s logo on it.

But the vast majority of inspectors understood the value of the KISS principle when it comes to gifts: “No thanks, I can’t accept any gifts.”

And all of them understood that immediately reporting bribe offers to their supervisors was in their own best interests.

It is hard to overstate how unacceptable it is for an agency conducting public safety and health enforcement not to have a formal policy on how employees must respond when offered bribes or gifts.

At best, it’s a reflection on the competence of the people running the department; at worst, it’s a reflection on everyone’s integrity.

The IG also reported that DHCD lacks explicit procedures governing all aspects of inspections and citations of building violations, especially re-inspections to confirm the correction of violations. It was another indictment of DHCD’s lack of professionalism.

It gave me no comfort to read that Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy was hedging over the bribery issue, saying that any formal policy banning payola (free tickets, booze, gifts as well as hard cash) “requires review by the Department of Human Resources, the Office of the Labor Commissioner and negotiations with the unions.”

Any agency that regards such a fundamental management prerogative as setting rules on gifts and bribes as subject to collective bargaining is another city agency of doubtful competence.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos discusses her bill to change the composition of the advisory board for the Baltimore Office of the Inspector General. (CharmTV)

Councilwoman Odette Ramos is pushing the idea of a land bank, but is meeting with administration and Council push-back. (CharmTV)

Resistant to Land Bank

Land banks are quasi-public entities, given powers to acquire, hold and convey property that ordinary municipal agencies do not have.

The intent is to use those powers in a professional and apolitical manner.

The land bank concept evolved in the early 2000s as a means for rust-belt cities to deal with the large number of abandoned and derelict properties that resulted from shrinking populations.

Michigan became the first state in 2004 to enact legislation empowering cities and counties to establish land banks. Sixteen other states, including Maryland, now have similar laws.

To succeed, land banks must have a reasonable degree of autonomy and continuity.

A key ingredient is a professional staff able to make decisions in the best interests of the city and its neighborhoods without getting bogged down in politics and partisan horse-trading.

The work of a land bank can take years to complete, and that work must continue without interruption despite changes in city leadership.

As Ramos ramps up efforts to garner support for her bill to establish the Land Bank Authority of Baltimore City, Mayor Brandon Scott and other members of the City Council have been pushing back on the idea, claiming that DHCD can do the job better.

Feared Loss of Prerogative

Officially, they say DHCD could do the job better. But the real reason for their opposition is just what it was in 2009 when critics shot down former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s efforts to establish a land bank:

Reluctance by elected officials to give up control over the disposition of individual parcels of property.

The stock answer as to why the Council rejected Dixon’s proposal 14 years ago was concern about “transparency and financial feasibility.”

That’s nonsense. A former housing official in Baltimore later stated that resistance came from Council members who felt they wouldn’t have the same “prerogative” over their districts – the prerogative to influence who gets land from the city and who doesn’t.

Such influence has significant value when it comes to currying political favor and support.

Politically connected entities who fear loss of the inside track on land deals also oppose Ramos’ bill.

Can city government ever get beyond its preoccupation with short-term thinking?

Baltimore filmmaker Gabriel Goodenough made the following observation after completing “The Body Politic,” a documentary about Mayor Scott’s quest to curb gun violence in Baltimore:

“City politics are such – and this is one of the big things I learned – that no one works at long-term solutions. Everyone and everything about the system demands short-term results.”

And those short-term results usually involve political payoffs for individual politicians.

It remains to be seen whether the Council can rise above petty concerns and embrace a long-term solution to the problem of blighted housing by establishing a land bank.

The IG’s report on the bribery of building inspectors mocks the argument that a land bank is not needed because DHCD is up to the task.

An entity charged with the acquisition and disposition of thousands of derelict properties must be insulated from political interference, or it will fail.

If DHCD has a “culture of acceptance” of bribes by often small property owners, what are the chances it will resist attempts by powerful elected officials to control its decisions?

• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at dplymyer@comcast.net and Twitter @dplymyer.

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