City uses obscure civil law on landlords Court action targets abandoned houses

October 21, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore landlord has 60 days to demolish or fix his vacant, substandard houses or face possible jail time and stiff penalties under a tough, but obscure legal tool aimed at ridding the city of abandoned and boarded-up houses.

Mace M. Cohen, who owns 18 vacant houses mostly in the central city, was told by District Judge David Young on Thursday that if he did not comply, he could be held in contempt of court. Since 1968, court records show, Mr. Cohen has been found guilty of at least 40 housing violations.

The civil court action is rare because most of the city's efforts to get landlords to raze or repair their substandard properties involved prosecuting them for violating the housing code -- a criminal misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $500 an offense but no jail time.

Mr. Cohen, who said he did not appear in court because of a scheduling problem, said he is being unfairly targeted. He said his properties often are vandalized.

"I try my best to rehab them," he said. "But they are in tough areas and they keep hitting you."

Specifically, the city filed a bill of complaint for injunctive relief. The civil code, on the books for years but rarely used, was researched by a team of city lawyers, assembled by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to deal with the city's 8,500 vacant houses.

James Cann, owner of Larry Inc. and JMCN Inc., also was charged under the code, but his case has not been heard. Ten of his properties were labeled unsafe.

By requesting civil injunctions, officials hope to obtain court orders demanding action. Associate City Solicitor Jyoti A. Kumta said jail time or fines are at the discretion of judges.

One initiative after another has been tried to deal with abandoned houses -- tax breaks, auctions, low-interest loans, state grants and reduction of property taxes. Thursday's action seems one of the most serious.

Mr. Cohen said he doesn't believe he will go to jail but he will try to sell some of the properties.

"Why do they hold me to such a high standard when the city has so many vacants?" he asked.

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