Now, from the speculators who brought you the renovation of Capitol Hill, Mount Pleasant and Shaw, comes... Baltimore.
"It's the frontier," said John M. Novosel, a Washington real estate salesman who has bought 13 properties in Baltimore since last spring. "The market, compared with Washington, is like night and day."
In Washington, said a buyer for a District-based syndicate, "10 or 20 houses is a big holding today. In Baltimore, you're talking abut hundreds of units, thousands of units," and at a price per house that sometimes dips below $5,000. "The bricks are worth that," he said.
"I'll tell you," said a University of Maryland professor and investor who asked not to be named, "it's like taking cake from a baby."
The investors range from individuals buying two or three rundown houses in neighborhoods not yet quite fashionable to large syndicates snapping up hundreds of properties each through the city, according to real estate records and interviews with buyers and their agents.
They include some of the same people who made money in Capitol Hill, Mount Pleasant, and Shaw by buying up old houses, often occupied by renters, renovating them, and selling them to new owners for large profits.
Washington, however, is no longer considered as fertile a field for fast money as it once was. High prices, rent control and the new speculator tax in the District of Columbia have sent many investors 35 milrd north along Interstate 95 to the port city of Baltimore.
"It's almost like foreign investment coming in," said Ralph L. Johnson, a realtor whose West Baltimore firm's business has been "significantly increased" in the last few months by the Washington investors.
"Is it any further drivng to Washington from Reston than from Baltimore?" asked a buyer and investor for a large Washington syndicate that has purchased "several hundred" properties in Baltimore. The question was meant to be rhetorical. (Reston is about 20 miles.) "People, to get value, will drive," concluded the buyer, who declined to be named.
"We feel Washington has hit its optimum," he said, mentioning that shells almost never all here for less than $35,000. "I've seen 20 percent appreciation since we walked into Baltimore this spring."
It was a move made, he said, after six months of study. "Very clearly and succinctly," he said, "the study we did indicates the Baltimore inner city is tremendously behind the Washington real estate market. We appreciate it's a blue collar town. But what we're projecting over there is the inner city of Baltimore is going to catch up with the national inflation trend, not today, but in five years."
The decision by investors, large and small, to take their money north was hastened, they say, by both the economic and political climate here.
"We want out of the Washington market," said the buyer for a large, Rockville-based group. "We're stymied at every turn."
The turning point for many speculators was the passage last spring of the nation's first urban tax on real estate speculation. Under the law, which went into effect July 1, up to 90 percent of speculators' profits on house sales are taxable. There are loopholes, but investors say they are closing fast. Speculators can escape the tax on properties vacant since last June, for example, but only if they sell before Jan. 13.
Another factor, Novosel and others say, is the different way in which the two cities deal with tenants who are behind in their rent.
In Baltimore, they say, landlords can evict a tenant in three weeks. Here, it can take up to six months because of bureaucratic procedures which, they say, favor tenants more than landlords.
"In Baltimore, the landlords are treated a little better," said Novosel, 29.
Another reason for the Baltimore phenomenon, investors say, is that the "old landlord clan" -- for reasons of age and equity -- is getting out of the market in Baltimore.
Fifteen to 25 years ago, some Baltimore speculators acquired large chunks of property in neighborhoods that changed from white to black. Over the years, the properties have been paid for and depreciated; and some of their owners have moved to Baltimore's suburbs and grown old.
Coincidentally, Washington investors appeared on the scene. According to one insider, half a dozen major Washington buyers have been "inventorying" the city, buying big and "piecing off" lots to smaller groups from here.
The major buyer would "rather stay away from a hot or moving community because the juice is quickly taken out of it," a syndicate buyer said. Smaller investors tend to focus on neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill, in north central Baltimore.
"This is the up-and-coming neighborhood," said one Washington speculator, who owns five Baltimore properties. He paid $10,000 in September for the one he owns in Reservoir Hill. He expects to be able to sell it in two years for $40,000 "at a minimum."
Before choosing Reservoir Hill, he said he studied the city's 1981 master plan and the planned route of the Baltimore subway, which will proceed along the neighborhood's southern boundary.
Novosel and Daniel Haapala, a cancer research scientist at the National Institutes of Health, are among the Washington investors who have bought property on Eutaw Place, a wide, north-sough avenue bisecting Reservoir Hill.
The homes on Eutaw Place are three-story row houses of brick and stone, many with stained glass above doors and windows, attractive iron grillwork, Victorian turrets, interior woodwork and marble fireplaces. Unrenovated, one such house cost $28,000 in July.
Haapala and partner Betty Graham, also an NIH scientist, bought their three houses on Eutaw Place through Judy Morris, a New Jersey native who now lives with her engineer husband and 3-year-old daughter in a Eutaw Place mansion built in 1895 by a coal industrialist.
Morris owns "22 or so" properties in the neighborhood and said she prefers to sell to homeowners instead of speculators. Both Haapala and Novosel said they are considering moving into their Eutaw Place houses once they renovate tham and commuting to Washington.
"We have a lot of people in this neighborhood who commute to Washington," Morris said. "There are a couple of National Gallery people, some attorneys."
Morris complained, however, that some Washington investors "buy and can't maintain the properties. One house on Eutaw Place is for sale for the third time. It's gone through two Washington buyers."
While decrying the effect of pure speculation on the neighborhood, Morris confirmed there was money to be made. The Eutaw Place property has gone from under $10,000 to close to $30,000 through the transactions.
"The last month has been kind of heavy with Washington people," she said. "They're just sort of driving up the street and looking and wanting to stop and talk about the neighborhood."
Baltimore property managers have also come to know the Washington investors. Fred Zurwitz, for one, accompanies them to foreclosure sales, advises them on what to bid on and then manages their investment once they buy.
Much of theactivity is occurring in heretofore low-income neighborhoods peopled by black tenants who stand to be displaced.
Diplacement has not become as volatile an issue in Baltimore, as in Washington, in part because Baltimore landlords have traditionally accepted the long-term yiedls of rental income rather than seeking to make a fast buck from speculation. In addition, Baltimore city's housing programs have sought to minimize displacement by public action and to further home ownership opportunities for low-income people on an unusualy large scale.
Jay Brodil, Baltimore's commissioner of housing and community development, said he was unaware of the presence of Washington-based speculators in his city. "I'm not sure what we can do about A selling to B, but displacement concern me," he said. "We need more middle-class people. You can't avoid displacement 100 percent, but have a number of programs to try to reduce the effect."
"I dislike displacing low-income renters," said one black speculator from Washington who is, however, ambivalent about the end result of his investing. "The one property I just picked up I improved. I'm more than a nickle-dime speculator," he said.
But, in the Washington real estate community, the feeling of enthusiasm for Baltimore, though widespread, is not universal. "Baltimore bores me." said Rhea Radin, a well-known Capitol Hill realtor. "I've heard people say they're doing a lot of restoration in-Baltimore. God knows it needs it."