Jujuan Bonaparte knew it was time to get out of her apartment when a plump rat chewed the nipple off her baby's bottle and then started to gnaw on his wicker bassinet.
For a year, she had endured the peeling paint and plaster, a broken bathroom floor, a collapsed living room ceiling and the poor heating of her East Baltimore apartment.
But when the rats came near her baby, Ms. Bonaparte had had enough. She and her two children fled.
They joined a 14-year stream of desperately poor people who say they have suffered the indignity, not to mention the hazards, of living in a house belonging to R. William Connolly Jr.
Whatever shelter Mr. Connolly's homes provide appears to come with an equal measure of despair, as Ms. Bonaparte, a 20-year-old woman now living in her mother's West Baltimore apartment, attested. "[Mr. Connolly] rents to us because he thinks, 'You need this, and I know you're not going anywhere else.' " she said. "Sometimes I'd sit and cry."
Mr. Connolly may not be the city's biggest landlord, but he is among the most troublesome. His fellow landlords call him "The Junkman" because, by his own admission, he owns and leases property no one else would touch. Others have harsher descriptions of Mr. Connolly. State and city officials -- including, most recently, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- have denounced his practices. His tenants flatly condemn him as a slumlord.
Of his 517 Baltimore properties, the city Housing Department has cited 154 for housing code violations, 99 because they are abandoned. The City Health Department has also cited him 59 times since 1986 for lead paint violations after children who lived in his houses showed symptoms of lead poisoning.
"I think he's destroying the city just as surely as if he were bombing it," said Anne Blumenberg, executive director of the Community Law Center, a non-profit agency active in housing matters.
"The lowest end of the housing market should not be this low," said Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.'s Mike Bardoff, whose examination of Mr. Connolly's properties has recently led to renewed focus on the landlord's practices.
So far, though, no one has been able to put Mr. Connolly out of business, and no one has been able to force him to dramatically alter his methods. He stays just inside the law, enough to keep his tenants in misery and his business, A Management, operating.
His days as a landlord, however, may be numbered. With Mayor Schmoke promising new measures to curb Mr. Connolly's worst abuses, with the Maryland attorney general's office reviving its interest in him, with lawsuits mounting against him, and with his inventory of vacant property ever on the rise, Mr. Connolly said last week that he is close to bankruptcy.
"Like I said to my poor wife last week, 'I'm just bobbing in the water,' " Mr. Connolly, 53, said during an interview.
Can't afford repairs
Mr. Connolly said he cannot afford to keep up with ever-increasing damage to his properties that he blames on tenants and vandals. He has lived, he said, to regret ever getting into low-end real estate.
L "It was the worst decision I ever made in my life," he said.
Hundreds of tenants may well regret that decision as well. By anyone's measure, some of Mr. Connolly's property is deplorable. At some of the houses, trash is piled knee-high in backyards, nail heads are exposed in wooden floors, linoleum is loosened, windows are broken, ceilings are collapsed, roofs leak, and holes are punched through walls between apartments.
Tenant after tenant complained about intolerable conditions: faucets that spew feces when toilets are flushed, water heaters that leak carbon monoxide, and rats everywhere.
For example, Faye White, a mother of four, who lives in the 130 block Wirton St., has to use a bucket for a toilet because of rats in the bathroom. she says. She has complained, she says, to A Management, but Mr. Connolly says the company has not heard anything from her.
Most tenants rent from Mr. Connolly because they have no alternatives. They are often getting welfare and food stamps and are on the waiting list for public housing and cannot afford more than the $300 a month Mr. Connolly typically charges. Mr. Connolly says that his property is often the difference between a shelter and the streets.
"Eighty percent of my people are the people that others won't take," he said. "They're single mothers with lots of children and bad credit. No one else would take them."
A slim man with wavy blond hair that flips over his collar, Mr. Connolly appeared in the office of his lawyer, Ira C. Cooke, wearing a striped, short-sleeve shirt, faded pants, argyle socks and worn boat shoes. He was affable and earnest and several times complained that the difficulties of his business are misunderstood.