Overwhelmed city housing inspectors ask for a raise and a little respect

February 02, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

Before city housing inspector Alton West showed a reporter a blighted apartment building on North Central Avenue last week, he made a bold prediction: "I'm going to show you hell."

Clipboard in hand, Mr. West stood outside the three-story building and looked for grime and decay that were not hard to spot. Soon, he piled up more than 50 housing code violations that would be sent to the building's owner.

"Peeling paint, dark hallways, no fire alarm or smoke detectors, cracked plaster, rodents and no running water," he said, writing at a furious pace while tenant Ivy Scott, 67, who is partially blind and pays rent of $150 per month, stood nearby.

Then he entered the dark, trashy basement to check on a broken pipe that had been gushing water for 10 days.

Such grueling inspections are common for the group of about 160 housing inspectors and supervisors charged with overseeing 276,000 dwelling units for the city Department of Housing and Community Development, Mr. West said.

As a result, the inspectors want their job description to be rewritten by housing officials. The City Union of Baltimore, which represents the inspectors, hopes a revision would cover the smorgasbord of work that they must do while monitoring fire, sanitation, building, zoning and health codes.

The inspectors also hope that a revision would boost their pay by about $5,000 annually, putting them in the same salary range as city building inspectors, who oversee nonresidential construction and renovation projects.

"We feel that our current job description does not scratch the surface of what we are expected to perform on a daily basis. We are just asking to be respected," Mr. West said.

Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city housing department, says that an eight-step review of the housing inspectors' jobs began in late December.

It will yield a recommendation about whether to realign their responsibilities later this year.

A wage increase would cost the city an estimated $500,000 and must be approved by the city's civil service commission, the expenditure control committee and the Board of Estimates, Mr. Germroth said.

"Their issue is parity," Mr. Germroth said of the housing inspectors, who are paid between $18,100 and $23,400. Building inspectors earn between $22,600 and $33,600 each year.

He said city officials compare the housing inspectors' duties and salaries to the force of 20 inspectors who work for the city health department. Health inspectors are paid between $21,900 and $33,800 per year to scrutinize restaurants, public restrooms and foster care homes, said Deborah Ross, health department spokeswoman.

Mr. Germroth said the housing inspectors perform a valuable service -- preventing blight in the city. He estimated that the inspectors field 20,000 complaints each year. In 1992, 15,402 violation notices resulted in 929 court cases for housing code violations.

But budget cuts and layoffs have left the department with about 90 fewer inspectors and supervisors than the city had in 1977, Mr. West said. That has hurt morale, he added.

Last November, Mr. West and 30 other inspectors confronted city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III during a City Hall hearing with a litany of the terrible working conditions they face daily.

"We are definitely at risk daily for violent crimes and communicable diseases," Mr. West said at the hearing. "The unseen and oblique foes are the close proximity we find ourselves in with TB, HIV and full-blown AIDS patients."

No inspector has contracted tuberculosis or the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome while performing an inspection, he says. Still, the inspectors are wary.

Leon Bailey, an inspector for 22 years, hopes the job and pay upgrades are approved.

"I work in Harlem Park, and it's kind of frightful there," said Mr. Bailey, 50. "You're talking about drug dealing, a lot of it. I'm exposed to that. . . . I just think we really deserve a pay raise. We've been depended on but not given the benefits."

Paul Cohen, a housing inspector for 36 years, also would like to receive a pay increase for the sake of equality.

"I know I wear a lot of hats, but that's part of the job," Mr. Cohen said. "We feel we should have parity with all the other people in the city. . . . The inspection department has not been upgraded since 1964."

Mr. West, an inspector for 25 years, said, "We have to deal with every dwelling in the city of Baltimore. You have never been in a place where a person would have 15 dogs and regardless of the fleas, we've got to go in and make the proper referrals. There is dog feces all over the place and trash everywhere but we've got to go in."

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