State Legislators Draft Several Bills Aimed at Ending the Ground Rent System in Maryland

Wow, ask and you shall receive, eh? (hat tip to The Baltimore Sun for their solid coverage of this issue)
Several state legislators said yesterday that they are drafting legislation to change Maryland's arcane ground rent system, including bills to prevent homes from being seized over missed rent payments and to ban the creation of new land leases.

"We're just going to do what we did with flipping and other scams. We're going to get rid of it," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, which handles matters of real property and housing. "We're going to stop it right where it began."
Wonderful news, I must say. Doug Gansler weighs in:
"It clearly wasn't intended for the owners of the ground rent to get hundreds of thousands of dollars of improved property," state Attorney General-elect Douglas F. Gansler said yesterday. "That's what people are finding outrageous."

The system has "outlived its usefulness," Gansler said.
I would say the system was useless from the start; an congenital colonial disease, besmirching the Old Line State. How the legislation against ground rent exploitation will take shape is not yet clear. Several bills are in the works at the State level.
One bill would eliminate new ground rents. Another would protect people who fall behind in their ground rent from losing their house. A third would assure that people receive information about the system when they close on the purchase of a home. This might require a new registry to make sure ground rent holders and their tenants can locate one another, McIntosh said.
I would like to see a combination of the first and the second. The system needs to be killed, and by eliminating new ground rents, that process can begin. Protection of the homeowner's property is also important.
"[State Senator, Brian E. Frosch] said the legislature must prevent ground rent owners from keeping all proceeds from selling the houses that they seize. No other private debt collectors can reap such windfalls. In a foreclosure, for example, the mortgage company gets to keep only the amount it is owed.

"It's especially outrageous that someone can come in and take the property, and they don't pay [the homeowner] the surplus" after its sale, Frosh said. "It's ridiculous."
And finally:
Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she would introduce legislation that, among other things, would reduce the fees that ground rent owners can charge homeowners if rent isn't paid on time or if a lawsuit is filed. Currently, ground rent owners can pass on up to $500 in costs of collecting overdue rent before a suit is filed and then up to $700 in attorneys' fees, $300 in title fees and all other court costs once a suit is filed.
George W. Della Jr., who failed to pass a similar bill in 2003, has the last word in the Sun article:
Goldberg, the ground rent owners' spokesman, said recently that he thought the fees should be raised because many expenses have increased.

"For that gentleman to say the fees are not high enough ... give me a break," Della said.
Good work by The SUN in making this issue an important one this year, and good work by the State Legislature for responding. Lets hope they can give anyone who owns or hopes to someday own a home in Baltimore City, a much needed break by getting rid of the predatory ground rent system.

UPDATE: Story today from The Sun about one family's fight to save their Canton home from an ejectment.

UPDATE 2: For a comprehensive look at ground rent in Maryland, check out The Sun's Ground Rent Series.

Baltimore has a Gang Problem (From the Avoiding the Obvious Department)

The Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee has released a report saying that Baltimore has a gang problem:
Baltimore has about 2,600 known gang members and 170 criminal street gangs, according to a new report from the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.
Is this supposed to be surprising? The report states some very obvious things, such as:
“The same areas that have clusters of gang members are the same areas that have clusters of shootings and homicides,” said James Green, the Baltimore Police Department’s director of special projects.
Now that is good police work. This is on par with findings earlier this year that assert without a shadow of a doubt that areas which have clusters of traffic (often known as "steets" or "roads" to the layman) are the same areas where police have been seeing clusters of automobile accidents, speeding citations, and drunk driving arrests.

The solutions the report proposes are also not surprising.

To combat the problem, the plan calls for increased opportunities and social interventions for youth; increased penalties for gang members who possess and use firearms; standardized reporting of gang members across area police and sheriff departments; better relations between the police and the community; and improved re-entry services for incarcerated people, among other initiatives.

Arianne Spaccarelli, a member of the plan’s steering committee and a policy analyst for the Baltimore City Health Department, said officials are going to be stressing “disciplinarian life skills” to potential gang members.

That sounds good if you assume that these gangs have nothing to do with the illegal drug trade, which is, in my humble opinion, an insane assumption. However, that is the exact assumption the report appears to make.

The only person who seems to take issue with the report is clerk of the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, Frank Conaway.
“I don’t know if it’s as serious as they say it is,” said Frank Conaway, clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court. “I’m out on the streets all the time, morning to night, and I just don’t see it.”

Conaway said he also took issue with the report’s findings that 94.2 percent of known gang members are black.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” he said. “There are no other gangs in the city other than African-Americans? How do you really know who’s a member in a gang, anyway? Who’s going to get arrested and say, ‘Well, I belong to a gang?’ ”

Thats not the problem though Frank. The problem is that this report on its own is meaningless because it doesn't address the root of gang activity and violence in the city, the illegal drug trade and the cycle of urban poverty that makes the drug trade so alluring to the forgotten youth of Baltimore.

So they can start as many programs as they like to teach gang members "social skills" (whatever that is supposed to mean) and they won't make a lick of difference. Dramatic changes will come when the city of Baltimore is willing to find creative solutions to policing the illegal drug trade and is willing to invest real dollars and time into ending the cycle of urban poverty here.

For a look at one idea aimed at ending that cycle, check this out.

Civil Unions Pass Legislatures in New Jersey

Read the news over at Blue Jersey

While the Maryland Court of Appeals continues to mill over whether to legalize gay marriage, us Free Stater's should pay attention to what happened in New Jersey. If the court's can't come to a decision, this issue could be left to the legislature.

In that case, I feel that they should work to pass a real marriage equality bill, something that allows gay couples to get "married" not just "civil unionized." I don't see the big difference between the two words other than their cultural significance, but as the advertisement I posted a few days ago says, there are differences that make an impact on people's lives.

As one Asm. (Caraballo) remarked:
"There are those who believe we should be using the word marriage. I'm one of those people. We simply do not have the votes today. What we do have is the will to undo centuries of discrimination."

Perhaps the Maryland Court of Appeals will make the right decision and legalize gay marriage. Otherwise, I hope we can count on our Democratic state government to make marriage, not civil unions, available to all the people of Maryland.


Some Feel Good News Stories

First, possibly the feel good story of the year:

Worlds Tallest Man Saves Dolphin
The world's tallest man has saved two dolphins by using his long arms to reach into their stomachs and pull out dangerous plastic shards.
Hell yes.

How can you not love that picture?


And now for a local feel good story that involves a collision of generations in Baltimore City schools.
A national program placing senior citizens in elementary classrooms as mentors is scheduled to announce an expansion today to four more schools in Baltimore.

Currently in 12 city elementary schools and poised to expand to 16, the Experience Corps program assigns seniors to work in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.

Officials report that participating schools have seen significant reductions in the number of children sent to the office for disciplinary problems. And, they say, seniors are often happier and healthier as a result of the work.

This week, the city school board voted to spend $94,000 to expand the program to Eutaw-Marshburn, Furley and Highlandtown No. 215 elementary schools. Coldstream Park Elementary will add the program in the spring using private funds.

This is the type of outside of the box thinking that Baltimore City schools need. Providing adult mentors to K-3 students is a great service and it appears to have benefits for all those who are involved.
Sylvia McGill, education director at the Greater Homewood Community Corp., which administers Experience Corps in Baltimore, said students in participating schools have been less likely to act out when they get attention from seniors. She said there is anecdotal evidence that the seniors need fewer medical appointments and give up canes and walkers.

If she can prove those health benefits are widespread, Fried said, "it would have very significant implications for the country."

"There are very few meaningful roles for people after retirement," she said. "People feel thrown away." A sense of purpose, she said, might make the difference.

Its not often that a program comes along where everyone involved benefits. Lets hope this program can be funded citywide in the future.


Peter Franchot has Plans

Hat tip to onbackground over at Free State Politics for the heads up on this article about Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot.

Compared to Donald Schaeffer's career as comptroller, Franchot appears to be a breath of fresh air.

Here are a few snippets I enjoyed, though I encourage everyone to read the full article.
"I campaigned as someone who has vision and values," said Franchot, a former state delegate who defeated Maryland political legend William Donald Schaefer in the primary. "People are thirsty for vision. ... I am going to give them a cohesive vision of the state's economic future, and I believe people will listen to it."
The agency's staff is full of veterans, many of whom served both Schaefer and his predecessor, longtime Comptroller Louis Goldstein. Franchot said he hopes to make only minimal personnel changes in the agency and to use its existing resources to play a wider role in the state.

"I'm going to copy Goldstein and be independent. I'm going to be a fiscal watchdog like Schaefer, and I'm also going to be a progressive like Peter Franchot," he said.
Man, it just feels good to hear an elected official call themselves a progressive. We can also trust that Mr. Franchot won't use his office to embarrass the state.
Schaefer spokesman Michael Golden said the current comptroller certainly used the office to voice his opinions on topics far and wide. Some of the highlights from Board of Public Works meetings included rants against immigrants, who don't speak English, AIDS victims, the Minority Business Enterprise Program and North Koreans.

"I think that what the comptroller was known for over the last eight years was using the Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit," Golden said. "Maybe not on the same topics as the comptroller-elect wants to, but certainly the incumbent made his feelings known."
And of course, you know you have elected a the best man for the job when Bob Ehrlich has this to say about him:
Most strident was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a frequent target of Franchot's barbs over the years, who routinely derided Franchot as a fringe, far-left liberal.

"Nobody should vote for Peter Franchot," Ehrlich said at an election eve campaign rally. "No one in the entire state."
I like this Franchot guy more and more.


It is Time to End the Ground Rent System in Maryland

The Sun article On Shaky Ground makes it clear why.
• In nearly every aspect, the law favors ground rent holders. Homeowners rarely win once a lawsuit is filed. And the longer a case goes on, the more it can cost the homeowner.

• No other private debt collectors in Maryland can obtain rewards so disproportionate to what they are owed. In contrast with a foreclosure, the holder of an overdue ground rent can seize a home, sell it and keep every cent of the proceeds. To prevent a seizure, homeowners almost always have to pay fees that dwarf the amount of rent they owe.

• State law puts the onus on property owners to track down their ground rent owner and make payments, though it's sometimes next to impossible to find that information. No registry of ground rent holders exists, and property deeds typically contain only the barest of details about them.

• Some investors seek out overdue ground rents to purchase, then file lawsuits to take the property built on the land. In some cases, the legal owners of these houses have died, and the law is not clear about whether investors must give relatives a chance to satisfy the debts and keep the homes.
I was also interested to learn that this is a colonial system. Unlike the rest of the nation (excluding Pennsylvania), Maryland has decided to let this relic of the colonial age live on. In Baltimore there is a now a cottage industry for creating ground rent "ejectment" cases. Often the cases aren't challenged in court, and once the homeowner, excuse me, newly homeless person, is put out on the street, the property can be sold for exorbitant amounts. Forget the fact that defendants are being charged more for the fees associated with prosecuting them than for the actual ground rent itself. Forget the fact that the "ejectment" case, often over unpaid amounts as low as $200 a year, can strip a person of their whole life's work in moments.

In the words of a ground rent lawyer in the article, "Business is business."

Ah yes, business:
Thelma Parks, 56, lived for more than two decades in Druid Heights, just a few blocks from the boyhood home of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, until losing her house last year in an ejectment case. It was filed by a trust set up by Fred Nochumowitz, whose relatives have long held ground rents.

Records show that the Nochumowitz trust bought the ground rent on Parks' house in January 2002. Parks couldn't make her payments, which with the fees for the court action came to "about $1,200," she says. With more time, she says, she could have paid off the $1,200.

After taking her property, the trust sold it to an investment company for $70,000 in September 2005. That company resold it about six months later for $128,000. Parks, meanwhile, was forced to rent in another part of town.

"It ruined every one of my plans," said Parks, who works for the federal government. "They all went out the window. ... I'm going to have to work until I fall apart.

"I can't retire," she said. "Everyone is making a profit from it but me."
I for one don't think this predatory practice of "ejectment" over ground rent should be business as usual.