County examines substandard housing study results

MD-County receives substandard housing report_3x house

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Dorchester County’s Substandard Housing Study found the study found 48 dwellings in Category 3 (extensive damage) and 217 in Category 4 (immediate removal recommended), but doing something about the properties will prove costly and difficult.

CAMBRIDGE — At the recent County Council meeting, Dr. Marvin Tossey of Lower Shore Families First of Princess Anne presented the findings of the Substandard Housing Study contracted by the Dorchester County Commissioners in December, 2014. The housing study, which was funded by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, took nine months to complete, and consisted of two phases.

Phase I was a “windshield inspection” of all the housing units in the county. The purpose of this phase was to identify substandard units by evaluating the exterior condition of each housing unit, and specifying the conditions of the roof, siding, and grounds on a numerical basis. Each of the three indicators could be given a score of 1 (good/satisfactory), 2 (needs repairs), and 3 (poor – beyond repair and requires replacement or demolition). Combining these scores gave a composite score for the observed dwelling, and composite score of 7 or higher earned the title “substandard.” A score of 6 was identified as “at risk,” meaning the unit could become substandard if repairs were not undertaken in a timely fashion.

The on-site assessment data were entered into the ArcGIS program, which is maintained by the Department of Geography and Geosciences at Salisbury University, through the use of an on-site iPad, which was also used to record images of the buildings. The data were then processed by the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative. The Cooperative produced point maps of the county by Minor Civil Division (MCD) and municipality. As of now, this data is not public, and can only be accessed by county officials.

An MCD is an unincorporated village or district, and there are 18 of them in Dorchester County. The county has nine towns or municipalities. Cambridge, the largest, is the county seat, and the others are Brookview, Church Creek, East New Market, Eldorado, Galestown, Hurlock, Secretary and Vienna. The City of Cambridge is also part of the Cambridge MCD, but the city holds 85 percent of the population of the Cambridge MCD.
During Phase II, surveyors conducted interviews with residents of all identified households, if available.
These interviews recorded data on 15 specific items, including the age of the house, size and structural condition of the unit, the availability of water, and the functional status of plumbing, heating, and electricity. In addition to the housing data, information was collected on the households of the occupied substandard units. These data include household size, race and age of occupants, and other variables.

The windshield survey identified 439 dwellings as meeting the criteria of being substandard. This means that of the 16,607 housing units that were inspected, 1 out of every 37.8 houses were identified as being substandard. The substandard houses were then classified further as 1: vacant, presumed to be for less than a year and still secure; 2: vacant but still secure for more than a year; 3: unsecure with extensive damage, and not likely to be re-habitable at market value of building; and 4: extensive deterioration, and needs to be demolished in the interest of public health and safety.

Of the worst classified structures, the study found in Dorchester County 48 in Category 3 (extensive damage) and 217 in Category 4 (immediate removal recommended). The City of Cambridge was listed with 32 Category 4 dwellings, while in Hurlock 16 Category 4 dwellings were identified.

Cambridge was not the location with the greatest concentration of houses demanding immediate removal, however. That distinction fell to a few of the MCDs, with 41 in the Straits MCD, and 37 in the Lakes MCD. Dr. Tossey suggested that, through interviews it became apparent that the majority of the abandoned Category 4 houses in the southern part of the county were the result of Hurricane Isabel, where houses were inundated and residents moved out, without the funding or possibly desire to pursue flood repairs. “Another situation,” said Dr. Tossey, “occurs when residents build a new house on the opposite side of a large lot, move into it, and let the old house crumble.”

The question arises immediately about any eyesore houses: what is the city/town/county going to do about it? Cindy Smith, grant administrator for Dorchester County, also serves housing functions in the county, and coordinated the substandard housing study. “This study was designed to provide a source of information,” said Ms. Smith. “This is just one piece of the puzzle in the housing issue, county-wide. We have tax-lien properties that we (the county) own, that we are trying to re-purpose; we have substandard housing that is occupied and unoccupied and are privately owned; and then there are zombies houses and things like that.”
Zombie houses? We had to ask the question….

“That is the latest lingo in the vacant property world. A zombie house occurs when a house is privately owned, with a mortgage, and the person living there decided they can’t afford it any more and they move out without informing the bank. The bank doesn’t yet know that they’re gone, the owner just stopped making payments, and it takes a long time for the bank to go through the process of foreclosure. The house is still in the owner’s name, but there’s no one to address any issues to, so they call it a zombie house.”

The situation on any house can get extremely complicated, and each property is unique in its troubles. “We were looking at one house in town, and a resident came up and said, ‘Here’s my situation with this house ….’ It was his grandmother’s house, and when she died she had it deeded to nine people. One of the nine people moved in, and was taking care of the place and paying the taxes. Today, that person is in a nursing home, and the property has gone two years without the taxes being paid. So the grandson says, ‘I’d like to pay the taxes, but not if I can’t take ownership.’ We had him contact an attorney, who told him he has to contact all nine people on the deed, get them to give up their claim on the property, and if they’re dead, you have to have an estate opened on each of them and have a personal representative assigned, and that personal representative has to agree to give you their 1/9 share in the ownership. And all nine shares have to be accounted for. So nothing is going to happen with that property. There’s no way that gentleman can afford to work his way through all the legal troubles. Instead, that house will have to go into tax sale, and that process winds up cleaning up the deed.”

When a house is torn down, it leaves a clean, vacant lot behind, which sounds good and can be desirable to a builder in some cases. There is a large “but” on that equation, though. The county owns 24 lots in the historic part of Pine Street in Cambridge. There are developers who would be interested in building and developing the properties, except … “When you look at what it costs to build a home,” said Ms. Smith, “Even if we give them the land, and the sewer and water hookups, even giving away the excise taxes, It still will cost at least $50,000 to $70,000 to build (even a small) house on it. And you can’t get a mortgage company to approve a mortgage in that area for $70,000.”

The bottom line is that once you’re done spending $70,000 to build that house, the day the new owner moves in it would only appraise for $40,000. In realtor’s terms, there are no “comps,” or comparable properties in the neighborhood, that will allow it to appraise that high.

So what will become of Dorchester County’s substandard housing? “It’s a huge, complicated problem,” says Ms. Smith, and apparently one that will require close attention to every affected house, rather than hoping for some sudden, sweeping reform to clean everything up overnight.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment