Baltimore neighborhood activists have found a new tool for fighting owners of dilapidated vacant houses.
A recent court ruling has made it possible for the owners of vacant houses to be sued under the state's nuisance law and forced to either occupy the houses or to turn them over to a community group for renovations.
Late last month, Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan ruled in favor of community leaders in West Baltimore's Harlem Park who were fighting the owner of a vacant rowhouse on the 700 block of N. Carrollton Ave.
Kaplan gave the owner 90 days, starting on June 21, to repair all housing code violations and to obtain an occupancy certificate from the city.
If the owner fails to make the repairs and occupy the property, said Kaplan's ruling, the Harlem Park Community Association will be appointed receiver to oversee renovation of the large rowhouse.
The cost of the repairs will then be attached to the house through a property lien.
Anne Blumenberg, director of the Community Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of the Harlem Park community in West Baltimore, said her group might ask the judge's permission for a receiver to sell the house if the owner does not occupy it in 90 days.
Although Kaplan's decision does not have as much weight as a precedent from an appeals court, it makes it easier for community groups to use the nuisance law to sue owners of vacant houses, Blumenberg said.
Already, she said, her group -- which represents several community groups in the inner city -- has filed 10 more cases against negligent owners.
She said title searches are under way to determine ownership for another 200 vacant houses which could result in more lawsuits.
Vacant houses, particularly rowhouses, have become an increasing problem in the inner city. According to city officials, there are about 6,000 vacant buildings currently in Baltimore.
The rowhouse subject to Kaplan's recent order, vacant for more than six years, was described in the lawsuit filed by the Community Law Center as a rat-infested fire hazard where vagrants and drug addicts gather.
According to the lawsuit, the house next door, owned by Harold Simmons, has suffered roof and water damage and cracked moldings. At one point, Simmons' home insurance was temporarily canceled because of the hazardous condition of the house next door.
Numerous housing code violations cited by city inspectors have failed to induce the owner to repair the vacant building.
In addition to the judge's ruling, the City Council has recently passed a bill allowing city officials to petition a court to appoint a receiver to rehabilitate and sell a property if the owner fails to do so.