Edward W. Lee Jr. is a landlord and developer who has been trying for four years to get the city to sell him five vacant, rat-infested buildings in the 800 block of N. Fulton Ave.
But, despite an apparent lack of interest by anybody else in the properties and the Schmoke administration's stated goal of reducing the city's stock of 5,000 vacant houses, Lee's repeated inquiries have yet to yield much of anything except frustration.
Lee says the city's Department of Housing and Community Development initially told him that the buildings belong to the Housing Authority, a separate agency that has strict guidelines for the disposal of property.
Later, Lee says, the city told him that it had control of the buildings and the deal was speeding toward fruition. After that Lee heard nothing for a long period of time until, after repeated prodding, the city offered to sell him just one building last August.
"It's totally frustrating," Lee says. "You think they would want to get these properties back on the tax rolls."
When asked about Lee's situation, HCD issued a statement saying that several of the parcels that Lee wants still are under control of the Housing Authority. HCD said the Housing Authority won't turn them over to the city until the vacant buildings can be replaced with units of "equal quality, units and bedrooms."
"When I talk about this situation, my friends say I'm crazy. They say, 'who would want to invest in this neighborhood anyway?' " Lee says. He says his interest is twofold.
One, Lee is an experienced landlord and contractor who believes he can make money in an area most business people shun.
Secondly, Lee is a native of West Baltimore who says he wants to be part of improving his old neighborhood. Three of the more than 30 buildings he owns across the city are within a block of the buildings he wants to buy.
Since Lee began pursuing the vacant buildings in 1986, the city has spent money to paint their exteriors and board up their doors and windows. Those steps came as part of a city campaign to beautify Fulton Avenue, a heavily traveled corridor that city officials describe as a "window" to Baltimore.
The structures remain in poor condition. Most have no roofs, the coat of white paint put on by the city is peeling and, from time to time, the boards are removed and the vacant buildings become homes to stray dogs and cats. And, Lee says, drug addicts sometimes use them as shooting galleries.
Worse for Lee, the vacant buildings adjoin two properties in which he has invested a significant amount of money to refurbish.
One, at 838 N. Fulton Ave., cost $100,000 to renovate several years ago, Lee says. Now, that investment is imperiled by water gathered in the adjoining vacant buildings, he says. Also, rats in the vacant buildings regularly alarm Lee's tenants by scratching on the walls.
Despite the problems and four years of correspondence with HCD, Lee has yet to find a way to buy the five city buildings. Most frustrating, he says, has been the long periods of silence and unclear signals from the city.
At the beginning of Lee's quest, the city told him that the buildings he wants were owned by the Housing Authority and under federal control. Later, the city said it had control of the buildings and even sent Lee through the expense of preparing architectural drawings and specific development plans.
Lee submitted those plans and drawings back in the summer of 1989. But for almost a year, despite dozens of telephone calls, he heard nothing.
Only after a chance encounter with a friend who works in the housing agency, Lee says, did he learn that city housing officials overseeing the properties mistakenly thought his proposal was incomplete.
Armed with that information, Lee called HCD and managed to arrange a meeting last March. There, he says, city housing officials promised that the purchase would be expedited. But again he heard nothing for months.
And last August, the city broke its silence to tell Lee he could buy one building. Lee declined the offer, saying he needed to have at least two properties to make his idea work economically. The city said the other properties are unavailable and under control of the Housing Authority.
"I'm convinced that there's a buddy system in place," Lee says. "It's a situation where people who are powerful, those who go to fund-raisers and know people, get taken care of. But this is what happens to people who are credible but have not developed contacts."
The city's treatment of Lee also has angered community members who are happy to see someone willing to invest money in their neighborhood.
"We don't have that many people who are coming to invest in this neighborhood," said Madeline Pullen, the president of several Harlem Park community groups. "I don't understand what the city is doing. The negligence is overpowering."