Human Termites

ANTERO PIETILA

January 30, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

And now the bad news:

Baltimore's public-housing mess is only a tip-off of a wider and even more insidious crisis that has been allowed to fester in the past five years under Mayor Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn.

This crisis concerns marginal, privately and city-owned housing which is being trashed at rates never before seen here. Unless this vandalism and abandonment can be stopped, increasing numbers of citizens are going to flee once-stable neighborhoods which then are taken over by drug addicts, arsonists and other social misfits.

This crisis can be seen in places like the 1800 block North Durham Street -- off East North Avenue. Over the past several weeks, much of the street has been ransacked by vandals. Human termites have systematically attacked house after house. Everything of value has been removed: appliances, copper piping, windows and doors.

This devastation is quickly spreading in the area. Take a look at the 1500 block Madeira Street, for example, and weep. One by one, tenants have disappeared without notifying landlords. Some may have left doors unlocked. Open to the elements, vandals and vagrants, all these vacant houses have been trashed. Stable renters do not want to live nearby. A neighborhood is dying.

''I wonder whether the owners of these houses even know about this,'' says Stanley Sugarman, whose real estate company manages a house still intact on that block. ''This is something that code enforcement ought to prevent.''

The trouble is that Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, as a consequence of years of budget cuts and questionable judgment calls, has given up on many routine code-enforcement activities.

The number of inspections decreased from 43,225 in 1989 to 33,466 in 1991. As the number of violation notices plummeted from 27,709 to 20,775, prosecution slackened.

The current practice by the overworked code-inspection unit -- which has been operating without a permanent head for more than a year -- is to scrutinize multi-family dwellings on a 14-18 month schedule. Rotating inspections of single-family row houses -- the city's major rental type -- have been ended altogether. They are now inspected only when requested by occupants. Meanwhile, Commissioner Hearn has failed to replace the special housing prosecutor who left more than a year ago.

The consequences are now becoming evident in the bombed-out look of many marginal residential streets. They are also adversely affecting the low end of the city's residential housing market.

While settled sales of houses costing more than $160,000 showed healthy gains in the city last month, cheaper housing hardly moved. In fact, the sales of houses costing less than $59,999 plummeted dramatically, according to data compiled by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

This is extremely significant because houses in that price bracket generally account for up to half of all residential sales in the city.

What seems to be happening is that lower-income working families are rushing to join the middle-class flight out of Baltimore. December settlement data from Baltimore County tends to support that conclusion.

In the county, the high and bottom end of the market plummeted and the middle recovered only modestly. The highest gains were registered in the $80,000-$119,000 price bracket which constituted nearly half of sales.

To a government insider, the city's overall housing crisis is so serious that he says, ''It's beyond explanations and apologies, it's all [messed] up.'' Yet the Schmoke administration chooses to be oblivious to this crisis.

A telling example is the housing-summit idea that was paraded last year by a number of individuals and institutions, including this newspaper. Meeting with Mayor Schmoke in October, the Board of Realtors promised that such a parley would be held before the end of last year.

Since nothing further was heard about the housing summit, I called the realty board this week to inquire. ''I would ask you to call Commissioner Hearn,'' was the answer.

Mr. Hearn said he could not tell when the housing-strategy meeting might be held. ''It's not off the books,'' he advised. ''It will be held sooner rather than later.''

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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