Schmoke to issue fix-or-sell order Mayor is targeting housing officials who own rundown rentals

Who knew what and when?

Community leaders expressing outrage over disclosures

February 03, 1996|By Jim Haner and JoAnna Daemmrich | Jim Haner and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Scott Higham also contributed to this article.

Amid expressions of concern by civic leaders yesterday over disclosures that at least five city housing officials own rundown rental houses, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last night that he plans to order all housing inspectors to fix their properties or sell them.

The mayor also said he is considering barring city employees involved in enforcement duties from owning rental properties.

Calling recent revelations in The Sun "very disappointing," the mayor said: "They clearly should have felt a duty as housing officials to keep their property in the best of condition. I think the real problem here is housing officials should hold themselves to a higher standard."

The mayor has ordered a top-to-bottom ethics probe of his housing administration to find out "who knew what and when" after learning that senior officials approved of city housing inspectors owning rental units in Baltimore.

By last night, code enforcers from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development had completed inspections on 10 rental properties owned by superintendent of inspections Henry John "Jack" Reed III and issued violation notices on each of them, said spokesman Zack Germroth. Another four citations were issued on five of his vacant rowhouses.

Independent surveys by a private inspector hired by The Sun found more than 100 deficiencies in just four of Mr. Reed's houses, the newspaper reported Sunday.

As of yesterday, at least five officials in the housing department -- including a close aide of housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III -- have been identified by The Sun as owners of substandard properties in the city.

The disclosures to date have raised questions about the quality of the city's housing inspection policies and the lack of oversight that allowed city employees who are responsible for enforcing Baltimore's housing code to own or manage substandard rental units locally.

Mr. Henson is on vacation and could not be reached.

Meanwhile, civic leaders from across the city were outraged at the revelations.

"It's abhorrent," said the Rev. Arnold W. Howard, pastor of Enon Baptist Church in West Baltimore and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a powerful group of church leaders from around the city. "Those who are responsible for enforcing regulations certainly should abide by those regula-tions.

"Certainly something should be done. It cannot be swept under the rug," he said.

Calling the situation "ridiculous," Robert C. Embry, former housing commissioner and now president of the Abell Foundation -- one of the city's leading philanthropic trusts -- said inspectors should be given a set amount of time to sell their properties or face dismissal.

"Inspectors shouldn't own [rental] properties in the city," Mr. Embry said. "Most regulators are not permitted to own what they regulate."

Mr. Schmoke said last night that some employees likely will face disciplinary action once his investigation is complete.

The mayor has expressed his dismay in recent days that the head of the inspections division, Robert Dengler, permitted his inspectors to own rental properties. But he also wants to review the upper echelons of the housing department to find out "who knew what and when," Mr. Schmoke's spokesman said.

Mr. Dengler said in an interview this week that the practice was in place when he took office in 1991 and that other city departments, such as Public Works, adhere to the same rule.

He added that he reviewed the policy shortly after he became head of inspections when he discovered that some of his subordinates were working in the same neighborhoods where they own rental houses. He shuffled them to different offices, he said, but was advised by city lawyers that there was nothing illegal about them owning rental units.

The mayor said yesterday that he is concerned with whether the city's own inspectors can objectively carry out surveys of their co-workers' properties, or whether an outside firm should be hired.

Yesterday morning, a case in Rent Court on North Avenue illustrated the conflict.

Mr. Reed, the superintendent of inspections, attempted to get an eviction order against one of his tenants, Goldie Sanders, a 33-year-old mother of two boys who rents a decrepit rowhouse from him at 2320 Jefferson St. The eviction notice came nine days after she complained to city housing inspectors about conditions in her home. Mr. Reed claims his tenant owes almost $3,000 in back rent.

But for the second time in as many weeks, Judge Jack Lesser postponed the hearing to allow time for a court-ordered inspection and temporarily suspended rent payments after learning of new allegations about problems at the property.

"Other landlords come here saying they are unaware of the law or they're not quite clear on it," Judge Lesser told Mr. Reed. "But you, sir, don't have that excuse."

The case underscores the nature of the possible conflicts of interest that housing officials can find themselves in, civic leaders said.

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