Housing Enforcement in Danger

June 08, 1991

If a car is parked illegally, it gets ticketed. If it is not moved, it is towed away. Can't something comparable be done about derelict houses?

For more than four years, Assistant State's Attorney Michael Braverman did just that. Aided by city housing inspectors, he used the existing Housing Court system to prosecute owners of derelict properties with considerable success.

To get him and the inspectors off their backs, many owners decided to fix up vacant houses. Others opted to sell run-down properties to renovators or non-profit housing groups. Streets pockmarked by boarded-up houses -- like the first block of South Carey Street near Hollins Market -- began showing signs of renewal and hope again.

This crackdown is now in danger. Yesterday was Mr. Braverman's last day as a housing department legal officer (he is transferring to a white-collar crime unit) and Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn has hired no replacement. As if that were not bad enough, the Housing Court unit in which Mr. Braverman served with three other full-time lawyers is being reduced to two full-time lawyers, ostensibly because of budget restrictions.

We cannot understand why this enforcement effort is being allowed to slacken at a time when neighborhood blight is increasing. If the commissioner is hampered by budget constraints, then a change in the priorities of the Housing Department is in order. After all, the stepped-up enforcement program is earning the city money by returning derelict properties to revenue-producing uses.

Any weakening in the city's housing enforcement effort is particularly harmful in view of the massive $25 million Nehemiah project coming to fruition in West Baltimore. Some 300 houses are being built there, each to be sold to a low- or moderate-income home owner.

Can they survive as islands in a surrounding sea of neighborhood blight? The only way they can is through more vigorous code enforcement, which will pressure delinquent property owners to clean and upgrade the larger community. (Coincidentally, the code enforcement and vacant housing issue will be discussed at a forum sponsored by the Citizens Planning and Housing Authority next Saturday. The forum, from 9 a.m. to noon, will be held at St. Elizabeth's Church Hall, East Baltimore Street and Lakewood Avenue).

Past attempts have shown that the city's stockpiling of vacant houses is not an effective or inexpensive way to upgrade neighborhoods. A far more profitable avenue is to persuade landlords and owner-occupants to take care of their properties or to sell them. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must see to it that this enforcement effort does not lapse.

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