Residents find termites invading their oasis

April 14, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Eight years ago, Kevin Lassiter looked at the sparkling new townhouses in the Oliver-Johnston II community and saw a peaceful oasis in a depressed East Baltimore neighborhood.

"They took a chunk of heaven and placed it smack dab in the city," his wife, Annette Lassiter, recalled him saying.

Now, the Lassiters say their heaven has turned into termite hell.

An exterminator treated the house and certified it termite-free before the Lassiters moved into it. But four years later, the termites began eating away at the couple's dream house.

Exterminators have treated the house twice since 1990, but the termites return.

Twelve of the Lassiters' neighbors say termites are eating their homes, too. Last week, City Council members Carl Stokes and Anthony J. Ambridge, 2nd District Democrats, visited the development at Chase Street and Harford Road to discuss the problem with the residents.

The houses were purchased through a federally subsidized program that knocked the price from $58,000 to $38,000 with just a $500 down payment.

City housing officials touted Oliver-Johnston II as a way to reverse the neighborhood's decline by bringing moderate-income homeowners into the area.

"We would love to say the builder is responsible. But he's out of business," Mrs. Lassiter said of Van Dyke Building Corp., which folded shortly after the 34 townhouses were completed in 1988.

The exterminator that treated the soil beneath the homes and certified them termite-free also went out of business.

"We are hoping that the mayor and the city government would be willing to step in and save us from this bug-ridden hell," said Mrs. Lassiter, who moved there from an O'Donnell Heights apartment with her husband.

She pointed to holes in her walls, from which swarms of termites have emerged. She said her husband sucked up "hundreds" of them with a vacuum cleaner.

Mr. and Mrs. Lassiter then headed to the basement, grimacing as they approached several of the termites' long, thin tunnels that hang from the home's wooden beams.

"I didn't know these were back there," said Mr. Lassiter as he discovered new evidence of the antlike creatures. "I hadn't seen this one before."

RTC What they have seen is weakened wood in an upstairs floor that caved in under Mrs. Lassiter's heel. It cost about $1,500 to replace the floor, she said.

Gary R. Gamber, who was vice president of Van Dyke Building and now is a financial consultant, said his former company was not responsible for the problem. He believes the new homes were built atop termite-infested wood that was buried when structures that formerly occupied that site were demolished.

He believes the city failed to excavate deep enough to ensure no infestation.

"It wasn't our ground. It was the city's ground," Mr. Gamber said. "If they didn't give it to us clean, I don't know what there is for us to do."

Baltimore officials disagree.

"The builder's risk is the builder's risk," said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "You can't alleviate your risk by saying that somebody else didn't excavate far enough."

However, Mr. Henson and another housing official said the city would work with the homeowners to solve the problem by putting residents in touch with a termite expert.

"If we have to come up with a plan to find money to work with them, we will," said Reginald U. Scriber, a city Housing Department official.

Mary Ellen Setting, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said pesticides that are properly applied around the perimeter of a home should ward off termites for about 20 years.

Termites aside, residents of Oliver-Johnston II praise the quality of life there. Children ride bicycles behind the houses and play on the swing in the Lassiters' front yard with one of the couple's four children.

From Chase Street, residents have an unobstructed view of Baltimore's skyline -- a real benefit for July 4 fireworks.

But Bonnie L. DeLoach says she wants to move out of the community because of the termites and crime. She said she has paid $600 to replace a floor and has had exterminators treat the soil around her homes twice.

Six months ago, she noticed termite tunnels in her basement.

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