In Baltimore, Sun Shines On “Ground Rent” Outrage

Sometimes, we're reminded how journalism can change things for the better when a newspaper remembers that it's part of a community.

Last week the Baltimore Sun ran a three-part series that examined an archaic law that has been used by some investors to seize homes from their owners, for debts as little as $24.

While the homeowners rightfully own their houses, many pay rent twice a year for the ground on which their homes are built; in previous centuries, selling houses without the land was a way to keep home prices affordable for the working class. These “ground rents,” as they are called, are often for negligible amounts, and the homeowner may not even be aware they exist once they purchase the house, ignoring bills that can look like junkmail. Moreover, many of those rents are held by charities, foundations, churches, and banks that have rarely sued over unpaid rent.

However, certain investors in Baltimore have purchased these rents from the charity or the church, and then sued for ownership of the homes based on overdue rents; in the past six years, there have been 4,000 such suits. Though the overdue rent might be insignificant, the investors claim legal expenses, which drive up the amount owed, producing a sum of a few thousand dollars that in some cases is beyond what the homeowners can pay.

In neighborhoods where property values are rapidly increasing due to gentrification and renewal of the downtown area, these investors turn around and sell the homes at exorbitant profits; and unlike when a bank forecloses on a home to collect a debt, these investors do not merely take from the sale what is owned them and turn over any remainder to the ousted owner. They keep it all.

Neither the state attorney general’s office nor state legislators were aware of the practice. However, after two Sun reporters broke the story, it was swarmed by talk radio and other local media, and state legislators introduced legislation to cap the damages that ground-rent owners can recover.

While we are quick to point out the failings in our profession, this series from Charm City’s paper gave us goose bumps, and reminded us how journalism can change things for the better when it remembers that it’s part of a community.

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Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.