A recent change in Baltimore's building code allows the city and community leaders to take control of vacant houses from absentee owners and turn them over to non-profit developers for renovation.
The city housing department, in conjunction with the non-profit Community Law Center, filed suit in District Court yesterday against the owners of two rowhouses in East Baltimore.
The suit asks the court to appoint the Middle East Community Development Organization as a receiver of the properties so they can be renovated and sold to families in the community, which is located near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Middle East is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods and it has one of the highest concentrations of vacant houses in Baltimore.
There are more than 6,000 vacant houses in the city and the problem is growing.
Yesterday's suit is similar to one filed in 1989 in city Circuit Court by the Community Law Center. The suit claimed that a property owner violated the state's nuisance law by maintaining a vacant, dilapidated house in West Baltimore's Harlem Park neighborhood.
The law center sought a court order forcing the owner to either repair all the housing code violations and occupy the house or to turn it over to to the Harlem Park Community Association, a community group that wanted to renovate the house.
Two years after the suit was filed, the judge ruled in favor of the law center and ordered the owner to repair the house in 90 days. After the owner failed to make the repairs, the community association was appointed receiver to oversee renovation of the house. But by the time the lengthy court process had ended, the community group had run out of money to make the repairs.
With this new tactic -- using the lower, District Court -- the case will be heard in six to eight weeks, said Ann Blumenberg, director of the Community Law Center.
In addition to speeding up the process, "this allows a private organization to piggyback on the city's authority to do housing code enforcement in District Court," said Mary E. Gardner, special legislative assistant to the housing commissioner.
The two vacant houses in the suit are in the 1700 block of E. Eager St. One of the houses has been vacant since 1988 and other since 1983, said Blumenberg.
The owners have 30 days to respond to the suit or appear in court and prove that they plan to rehabilitate the properties, said Blumenberg.
But once the court turns a property over to the receiver and changes title to new homeowners, the original owner has no title to the property, she said.
Blumenberg said community groups throughout the city are looking for funding for a new entity to be called, "Save a Neighborhood," which would finance the renovation of these vacant houses, once a community receiver takes control.
She said the Community Law Center and the city's housing department hope to file 30 more cases against the owners of vacant houses in the next two months.
"This about the empowerment of community groups to take control," she said.