City landlord spared jail for housing violations Apartments lacked heat in November

March 31, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

The co-landlord of a Mount Vernon-area apartment building that had no heat, hot water or hallway lighting during a cold snap in November was given a suspended jail sentence yesterday and ordered to pay $100 in court costs.

The sentence -- actually two, concurrent 10-day suspended sentences -- angered the co-landlord's former tenants, who wanted her to spend a few days in a cold jail cell.

But the defendant, Eda Collins-Bell, told Baltimore District Judge Martin A. Kircher that she had endured enough hardship from the apartment house's other landlord -- her husband.

Ms. Collins-Bell, 38, appeared with her lawyer to face two counts of criminal housing code violations.

Her estranged husband, C. Christopher Bell, 36, has moved to Colorado and is being sought on an arrest warrant.

The couple, who filed for bankruptcy together in January, claimed their worsening financial condition made it impossible for them to pay utility bills for the 16-unit apartment house at 511 Park Ave.

"It's a shame your empire fell apart," Judge Kircher told Ms. Collins-Bell as he pronounced sentence.

The couple previously owned 14 other apartment buildings in the city.

Citing Ms. Collins-Bell's responsibility for the care of two children and her lesser role in managing the business, the judge suspended her jail time.

"If you see your husband in the city, call 911," Judge Kircher told her at the end of the hearing.

For about two weeks in November, when temperatures at times dropped below freezing, tenants said the Park Avenue apartments -- in a four-story building -- were not only cold but unsafe due to lack of lighting.

The Bells charged between $225 and $400 a month for the apartments, which were taken over in November by a local bank that has since rectified the problems.

Prosecuting attorney Peter C. Dwyer said Ms. Collins-Bell and her husband rented apartments to several people in October and November despite the landlords' knowledge that they wouldn't have the moneyto pay for utilities.

"She, along with her husband, induced these people to move in, because they wanted the rent money," Mr. Dwyer said.

"It was a situation she could have avoided. Bankruptcy does not preclude her from guilt," he said.

Stephen R. Tully, Ms. Collins-Bell's attorney, argued that she did not "willfully attempt to deprive tenants of the light."

The failure to pay utilities and make repairs resulted from the Bells' lack of money, he said.

"This is not a slumlord who was feeding off the people in the ghetto," Mr. Tully said. "This person lost everything. We're not talking about someone who is lying around a swimming pool at a million-dollar house."

Ms. Collins-Bell told the judge that she is living in an apartment now and has taken a temporary job earning $11 an hour.

"We have the clothes on our back, that's about it," said Ms. Collins-Bell, who said she is taking care of the couple's two sons, ages 2 and 5.

"When you file for Chapter 7, you keep your dishes, that's all," she said.

Ms. Collins-Bell was charged only with the lighting offenses, while her husband faces the same charges plus three others for depriving tenants of heat.

"We'd like to find Mr. Bell, too," Mr. Tully told Judge Kircher. "Ms. Collins-Bell would like to get him to help her with child support."

Tenant Randell Shreve, a 24-year-old roofer, said the apartments were ice-cold and that tenants' calls to the Bells were only answered by a recorded message.

"I can feel compassion for her, because it sounds like she has faced some hardship," Mr. Shreve said.

"But I still would have liked to have seen a jail sentence. She knew what she was putting us into," he said."

Another tenant, Glenn Raucher, 26, who said he was the manager of a rock band, called the apartments negligently managed.

"It's a very nice apartment building, but they didn't care about giving us a nice place to live," he said.

Mike Bardoff, a representative of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a non-profit fair-housing agency that initiated the complaint against the Bells, said, "I think she got off pretty easy. These people were mistreated and they were even put in danger."

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