Schmoke, Henson launch probe of housing official Council members tour rundown homes owned by inspector

January 30, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

As new details surfaced yesterday of dangerous conditions at rental properties owned by a senior Baltimore housing inspector, the mayor and housing commissioner launched a probe to determine how an enforcement official was allowed to let his rowhouses become slums.

Later in the day, two City Council members took a tour of one decrepit property owned by city housing inspection superintendent Henry John "Jack" Reed III.

Standing in the kitchen of a rowhouse in the 1800 block of N. Durham St., Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch watched aghast as hundreds of cockroaches boiled out of the rotted woodwork around a basement door.

"Oh, my God!" Ms. Branch stammered. "I have never seen anything like this in my life. I don't know what to say. What can anyone say? Good Lord!"

Throughout Baltimore yesterday, city officials and civic leaders expressed outrage in the wake of a story in The Sun on Sunday detailing more than a hundred safety and health deficiencies in four of Mr. Reed's 17 houses.

The article, the result of a three-month investigation, recounted how city housing officials knew of Mr. Reed's portfolio of rental properties but did nothing to bar him from his enforcement role with the city or to ensure his properties met the housing code.

Mr. Reed, 55, a superintendent of inspections in the Department of Housing and Community Development and a city employee for nearly three decades, is paid $46,000 a year to enforce the city housing code.

Henson infuriated

In an interview yesterday, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III pledged a full investigation into all 17 of Mr. Reed's properties in Baltimore, saying he was infuriated to learn that senior officials in his department have known for years that Mr. Reed owned rental houses in the city.

"I went to great pains to divest myself of all my personal holdings in this area 2 1/2 years ago when I became commissioner to avoid exactly these kinds of appearances of impropriety," Mr. Henson said. "And I don't appreciate it one bit that the people under me don't see their responsibility the same way."

Mr. Henson said he was dumbfounded to learn that his director of Housing and Community Development, Robert Dengler, had approved an unofficial policy in his agency allowing housing inspectors to own rental properties. Further, they have not been hTC subjected to any greater scrutiny than other landlords in the city, despite their positions of authority.

"No, I did not know that until today," Mr. Henson said.

Mr. Dengler has not returned calls to his office and home since Friday.

City records show that Mr. Reed has avoided major code enforcement action against his properties for more than a decade -- during a time when many of his houses were sliding toward collapse and his tenants were suffering with termite-eaten floors, faulty heating systems and worse.

'Point of no return'

"I would categorize these properties at or near the point of no return," said Wayne G. Norris, a private housing inspector hired by The Sun to survey the four Reed houses.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he has ordered a report on Mr. Reed's employment to determine what steps the city should take and to determine if "further action is warranted" against him.

The mayor said any policy that allows city employees to own rundown properties sends the wrong signal in Baltimore, where many residents are frustrated by poorly kept and vacant rental homes.

"The problem is people can point their finger at us and say our house isn't in order," Mr. Schmoke said. "The Reed case really shows that."

It also shows what can happen to a struggling neighborhood when slum property owners are left unpoliced for years, said the Rev. Milton Williams of the New Life Evangelical Baptist Church in the 2400 block of North Ave.

Mr. Williams is first vice president of the Broadway East Community Association, which has been struggling to get city inspectors to step up code enforcement in the neighborhoods along North Avenue and Broadway -- where most of Mr. Reed's properties are concentrated. Mr. Reed owns at least eight seriously deteriorated rowhouses there.

"When I first heard about this man Reed, I was completely undone," Mr. Williams said. "It was almost impossible to believe, until I heard what the newspaper had found, particularly as it pertains to the disparity between the conditions his white and black tenants have been living under."

In its article, The Sun found that the four rowhouses where Mr. Reed's white tenants live in Canton and Hampden are well maintained with fresh paint, new storm windows, doors and carpets.

Short tour

Yesterday, two visitors to Mr. Williams' church -- Councilwoman Branch and Councilman Robert L. Douglass -- asked for a fact-finding tour of Mr. Reed's properties in the neighborhoods they represent. The tour did not last long.

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