TRYING TO CLOSE A LOOPHOLE:

Council Bill Would Mandate Appraisals Before City Sales

by Carey Seal
       For years, some Baltimore City agencies have been selling real property to private interests without knowing or even attempting to discover its true value. Allegations abound that City real estate has been sold to well-connected individuals for a fraction of its worth.
       Now City Councilwoman Lisa Stancil and nine of her colleagues are demanding greater transparency in the City’s real estate transactions. They have introduced a bill that would allow the Comptroller to require independent appraisals of a City property before it is sold.
        Stancil explains that sometimes the Council has tried to investigate a particular sale only to learn that “settlement on that property is only a day or two after the meeting.” Comptroller Joan Pratt herself has sometimes been denied information about a particular transaction because settlement is imminent.
       Although the Board of Estimates adopted a policy calling for independent appraisals in 1996, the policy has not been consistently adhered to; Stancil explains that “there’s nothing on the books” currently mandating appraisals.
        All property sold through the Department of Real Estate is already subject to appraisal, but Stancil mentions the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) and the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) as two agencies without consistent appraisal policies.
       John Wesley, an HCD spokesperson, said, “Calling for appraisal doesn’t really make sense for some of the properties,” as they may have little value. “We have to look at financial feasibility,” he said. HCD Commissioner Patricia J. Payne will be reviewing the proposed legislation early in June, he said, and at that time will decide whether or not HCD will seek some kind of exemption to the bill’s assessment requirements.
       BDC officials were unavailable for comment.
        The bill is currently in the City Council’s Finance Committee, chaired by Helen Holton. There is a possibility that the required hearing will be delayed until the fall. Stancil is optimistic about the bill’s chances, however. “It just makes sense,” she says.


Carey Seal is a senior at Gilman School. He will attend Yale University in the fall.


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This story was published on June 1, 2000.