Housing policy goes on trial in Rent Court Inspector seeks to evict his tenant who complained

February 02, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

The case of Henry John "Jack" Reed III vs. Goldie Sanders is on the docket this morning in city Rent Court on North Avenue. It pits a senior housing inspector against a 33-year-old mother of two who is renting a crumbling rowhouse from him in East Baltimore.

Mr. Reed wants to evict his tenant. But actually on trial are the policies of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development and a housing code that is supposed to protect renters.

LTC Mr. Reed, 55, a superintendent of housing inspection for almost three decades, was allowed to amass a portfolio of 13 troubled rental properties on the city's east side with the knowledge of his immediate superiors.

During that time, city records show, his own agency did nothing to ensure that he maintained his rowhouses and took no enforcement action against him.

"Yes, we knew he owned properties," said Mr. Reed's boss, Housing Inspections Director Robert Dengler. "And we transferred him out of our East Baltimore office for exactly that reason: to be sure he wasn't overseeing inspections in the same area where he owned houses.

"But we have never had a policy against our inspectors owning rental units. And we decided long ago to treat them like any other landlords. If tenants don't complain, we don't inspect. That's always been our understanding of the law."

One of those tenants was Ms. Sanders, who moved into Mr. Reed's house at 2320 Jefferson St. in 1987.

Over the years, she encountered scores of problems -- rats crawling through holes in the walls, floors sagging from termite-eaten beams, a cracked oil tank that drained off the fuel she bought, a broken water main, a malfunctioning heater that went out for six weeks through the Christmas holidays.

Her bills mounted as her heat and water leaked from the crumbling walls and pipes: more than $900 in water bill overages; routine gas and electric bills of $195 per month in a three-bedroom rowhouse; a $300 jump this winter when the furnace went out and she had to heat her house with the gas

range and a space heater.

"I feel like this house has been robbing me for eight years," she said.

And as her bills mounted, she fell behind in her rent -- $50 here, $100 there. Three rent increases over eight years didn't help.

In December, she had had enough. She called for a city housing inspector. Unaware that the property was owned by a superintendent, inspector Shirley Lourd wrote up 15 deficiencies Jan. 9.

"When she got back to the office, she called me and said, 'Jack, I'm sorry, I wrote up one of your houses,' " Mr. Reed said in a recent interview. "I told her: 'Do what you have to do.' "

Mr. Dengler said it is standard policy in his department to alert landlords when tenants complain or when deficiencies are found "to give [the landlords] time to make repairs."

But the department doesn't tell tenants whether violations have been found or that they are entitled to a copy of the deficiency report.

It is just the sort of report that tenants such as Ms. Sanders could use to defend themselves in court if their landlord retaliates and tries to evict them. Retaliation is against the law, but tenants often are unaware of their rights.

"That's what legal aid lawyers are for," Mr. Dengler said.

Nine days after Ms. Lourd inspected Ms. Sanders' house, Mr. Reed filed an eviction action against her in Rent Court, claiming that she owes almost $3,000 in back rent.

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