Motives of 'slumlord' baffle housing officials

August 08, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

In West Baltimore, a staircase with a missing second step leads to a porch strewn with toys. In Pimlico, weeds and trash clutter a lot where a ramshackle house once stood. In Govans, mismatched brackets anchor a downspout to the rotting, wood siding of a house.

These are the monuments to Morris Garbis, dubbed a "slumlord" more than three decades ago and, at 78, the city housing court's most enduring defendant. When he was sentenced recently to a year in prison -- after proving to be no more conscientious about brokering real estate than he was about maintaining it -- few who have followed his career in low-rent real estate were surprised.

Still, questions remain: After evading fines of more than $100,000 and absorbing hundreds of housing court convictions with no more than a few days in jail, why did Garbis continue to flout the law and, in his old age, land in prison? Why did he continue to broker real estate without a license and bilk would-be home buyers?

"At this point it's almost blind momentum," said John Huppert, who, in 14 years as Baltimore's chief housing inspector, spent much time overseeing the pursuit of the landlord whose derelict properties earned him the nickname "Morris Garbage."

"He's done it his whole life. What else is he going to do?," Mr. Huppert said. "I think he likes to buy and sell real estate. He doesn't do it well, but it's what he likes to do."

Some say Garbis' problems come from being scatterbrained; others say he is a shrewd grifter who acts the bumbling old man. Some say he has made lots of money over the decades; others note that he lost his home of 20 years in a foreclosure sale and now lives in a modest apartment near Pikesville.

And some say the legal system, which until now did not impose severe sanctions, fostered his disregard for the law. Others say he is simply an incorrigible eccentric, unconcerned about any punishment he faced.

As for Garbis, he's not saying -- he declined to be interviewed for this article. When he was about to be sentenced to prison on July 26, he said little more than that he was "sorry for whatever I've done, if I've done it. I assume I've done some harm to the people who wanted to purchase these properties."

Despite all the theories about what drives Morris Garbis, everyone who has crossed paths with him agrees that he's in a class of his own.

"Morris has been the most unscrupulous real estate person the city of Baltimore has ever known because he would so flagrantly disobey the laws," said James C. Crockett, a West Baltimore real estate agent and former head of the state real estate commission.

Mr. Huppert, the former chief housing inspector, said Garbis was never Baltimore's largest landlord, yet "every single housing inspector in this city, now working or retired, would know his name. That's phenomenal."

Estimates on the extent of Garbis' property holdings range from more than 100 in his heyday in the 1960s, to less than 40 in the 1970s and 1980s. He now rents out about a dozen properties in various neighborhoods, according to government records.

Garbis' first conviction in Baltimore housing court came on April 26, 1949, and by 1960, he had rung up 45 convictions in city housing court and three more in criminal court.

In 1960, the then-fledgling Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. made Garbis its first target, successfully demanding that he be stripped of his real estate broker's license because of his poor record as a landlord.

Throughout that decade, newspaper accounts chronicled his misadventures in the housing court, where he was dubbed a "professional slumlord without sympathy for his tenants" and "a sore on the city."

Those words came from housing magistrate Robert F. Sweeney, who, after imposing the maximum fine on Garbis, once added, "It would be better if I could force you to live for 30 days in one of the hovels you own."

Now the chief judge of the state District Court, Judge Sweeney recently recalled, "It was obvious he was taking fines and treating them as the cost of doing business.

"His defense was always 'these people' didn't know how to live in a house and 'these people' were destroying his valuable properties," Judge Sweeney said. "Certainly it was a sneering reference to the economically deprived people who occupied his homes."

Fixture in court

For decades, Garbis remained a fixture in housing court, wher judges can impose fines, but in only rare circumstances can sentence a landlord to jail.

Legislative efforts to attach jail terms to housing code violations generally have not been embraced because raising the maximum penalty would allow defendants to demand a jury trial -- adding pressure to an overburdened court system.

It was not until the late 1980s that prosecutors decided the only way to seek a meaningful punishment for Garbis was to charge and fine him as an individual. By then, fines against his companies were seen as ineffective because the companies had few assets.

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