Prince George’s County’s cut of the multibillion-dollar national mortgage settlement includes $10 million that could be used to buy, repair and resell nuisance vacant houses in the Maryland jurisdiction hit hardest by foreclosures.
But it could be three years before all of those funds leave the
coffers of the state office of the attorney general. Why? The word “accountability” finds its way into many answers.
“Accountability is important,” said Alan Brody, deputy director of communications for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D). “Given that the money is part of a settlement that we helped secure, we have an interest in how the money is spent.”
Before the county housing agency gets any of its $10 million share of the settlement, it must submit a detailed plan of how the funds would be spent per project, get the attorney general’s approval for the plan and spend money already in the county budget to complete the project.
“Yes, they expend and then are reimbursed,” Brody said. “We are not just going to hand over $10 million to Prince George’s County.”
That presents a problem for Prince George’s, which like many state and local governments has little or no wiggle room in operating budgets. The budget for acquiring, fixing and reselling vacant homes — neighborhood stabilization — is $1.65 million, county officials said.
“There is no Brink’s truck coming with $10 million for us,” said Eric Brown, director of the county’s housing agency. “Yes, it would be nice if it were the case.”
Gansler is one of 48 state attorney generals who signed a consent order last April with the five largest U.S. bank servicers of mortgages. Maryland’s share of the $25 billion settlement is about $900 million. About $60 million went directly to state governemnt for disbursement. Gansler appointed a committee to determine how to spend the money. He accepted the group’s recommendations, including providing $10 million each to Baltimore City and Prince George's, the jurisdictions hardest hit by foreclosures in the state.
Brown, who served on Gansler’s committee, said the group “left it kind of open” regarding the process by which Prince George’s and Baltimore would be allocated the money.
Apparently too open for Gansler, who added his own conditions for Prince George’s and Baltimore. He banned the two governments from spending any of the money on outreach efforts to residents and added the expend-reimburse provision. Other jurisdictions have to apply but don’t have to spend first.
What jumps to mind in all this government gobbledygook is the county’s lingering reputation for corruption.
Residents of neighborhoods far away from the county seat in Upper Marlboro wonder why former county executive Jack Johnson’s pay-to-play party matters. Here’s a small example why it might. There’s money available right now to improve the quality of life for residents, millions of dollars taken from unscrupulous mortgage servicers. But when your representative in county government reached out to grasp the funds on your behalf, it looks like Attorney General Gansler smacked that hand.
Brody, one of the attorney general’s spokesmen, said the history of corruption in Prince George’s — and in Baltimore — did not factor into Gansler’s decision to add conditions on allocating settlement funds. However, in a statement released with the allocation process, Gansler said, “I have a duty to ensure that the funds achieve their intended purpose.”
Ten million dollars is not a relatively large sum. But that amount, if allowed to flow freely to the county housing agency, would increase the department's budget to stabilize neighborhoods more than six times.
But many Prince George’s neighborhoods need that help. Now.
The county accounted for 27 percent of all foreclosure activity in the first quarter of 2012, according to a report by the state Department of Housing and Community Development. In a category defined as a “very high foreclosure hotspot,” the county accounted for 79 percent of all the state’s cases.
In too many neighborhoods, especially inside the Beltway, long-vacant foreclosed houses haunt residents who remain and pay their mortgages or rents. In the 6700 block of Vermont Court in Landover, one boarded-up home sits across the street from two others on the cul-de-sac. In Capitol Heights, in the 5700 block of Bugler Street, a home with windows and doors sealed with plywood carries a warning emblazoned across a front entrance: “double murder house.”
And there's a foreclosed home in Chillum, vacant since 2008. Spring rains spark the growing season, which yields overgrown grass and weeds, which push neighbors to call the number on the for sale sign posted in the yard begging for upkeep. The roof, damaged long ago by high winds of a summer storm, sags and allows rainwater to soak inside walls and floors.
“The mildew smell was so strong it made me sick,” said Eniola, a 37-year resident of Chillum who did not want her last name used because she fears the “criminals starting to use [the house] as a hangout.”
“I’ve called police,” she said. “The last time, they found drug paraphernalia. I don't even like to walk past it. The last time I did, there was a man inside staring at me.”
Eniola recounted her frustrations at a town hall meeting last month. Minutes into her turn at the microphone, a woman in the audience shouted, “I’ve got the same problem.” Then came another. And another.
Eniola had heard about the billion-dollar settlement, but she didn’t know about the $10 million, a small portion of which could help rid her block of a nightmare property. “That house has been vacant five years ago this coming April,” she said. “Now you tell me there is money to fix the problem but we can’t get to it. It just gets worse and worse.”
Keith Harriston, a resident of Prince George’s County, teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com.
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