Landlord's neglect contributes to death of city

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 07, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

You have to visit R. William Connolly Jr.'s houses to truly appreciate the death that is happening in the city of Baltimore.

You have to stand in a kitchen where human beings live, and look at a ceiling that collapsed from decayed plumbing months ago, or look into the trash-filled basements of abandoned rowhouses Connolly owns, or talk to people who live in the shadow of such criminal conditions only because they cannot afford to escape them.

You have to will yourself to look at these things, because it isn't enough merely to look at the statistics on Connolly's housing violations, which are appalling, or the written housing citations, which are only words on a page.

You have to talk to a woman like Mary Knight, who is 80 years old now and shouldn't have to live this way. She's been on this little street in West Baltimore for the last 39 years, with her home next to a back yard on Sarah Ann Street where the trash is piled high over all the ground and the rats have free run of the place.

''I keep shut up most of the time,'' Knight says softly. Gray-haired, wearing a polka-dot dress, she's sitting in her little living room, maybe 10 feet wide by 10 feet long, with the windows closed tight on a sweltering afternoon because of the smell from the trash, and the horrifying rats.

''Oh, my Lord,'' she says. ''You see 'em running across. I sent for the rat people, but the city hasn't sent nobody. So I just try to keep 'em from gettin' in my house.''

You have to come to the 1100 block of Sarah Ann Street to understand how this city dies without reason. Sarah Ann runs parallel to Saratoga and Mulberry, with houses on each side of a street no bigger than an alley.

And here is your contrast: On one side are rowhouses owned by a woman named Helen Hunt, which rent for about $150 a month. They are neat, they have clean back yards, and the people who rent them keep the places livable.

Directly across the street are rowhouses owned by R. William Connolly Jr. Most are abandoned, and the remainder should be. They rent for nearly $300 a month. They are the kind of slum housing the city has criticized repeatedly, and it has given Connolly until tomorrow to clean them up, or else.

Or else what, nobody exactly knows. A year ago, the Housing Department cited violations at 154 of Connolly's 517 properties, 99 of which were abandoned. The Health Department cited him 59 times for lead paint violations after children who lived in his houses showed symptoms of lead poisoning.

But you have to visit some of these properties to translate these raw numbers into the death that happens to this city, and talk to people living here who speak of rats nibbling at the edge of children's beds, and flaking paint and water heaters leaking carbon monoxide.

In June, Connolly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in U.S. District Court. Since then, several hearings have been held, which creditors and government agencies have attempted to pressure him into improving his properties.

"He testified he's got $95,000 a month income from his properties,'' says Mike Bardoff, of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. "But he also claims he spends $30,000 a month on repairs, a figure which is disputable."

Bardoff shows lists of violations at Connolly properties. Connolly, who couldn't be reached in recent days, last year told Sun reporters Mike Ollove and Melody Simmons, "Eighty percent of my people are the people that others won't take. They're single mothers with lots of children and bad credit. No one else would take them.''

Maybe. But then you look at Sarah Ann Street. It's the same socioeconomic pool, in the same kind of housing, separated only by this little strip of concrete.

On one side: Connolly's cancer. On the other: reasonable living conditions.

"What's the difference in the two sides?" asks Dorothy Williams, whose $150-a-month apartment is crowded but clean. "Different landlords. Once you let 'em down, it's tough to build 'em back up. Our landlord doesn't let 'em run down."

"Our landlord does something for us," says Ethel Robinson, who lives in a $90-a-month apartment a few doors away. "So we keep 'em up, too."

The alternative is the death that occurs routinely in so many places owned by R. William Connolly Jr.

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