Inspector halts back-rent claim Documents, photos of deteriorated home persuade landlord

February 23, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Standing red-faced before a judge in Rent Court yesterday, a senior city housing inspector gave up almost $3,000 in back rent he said he was owed by an East Baltimore tenant after being confronted with evidence that he allowed his property to deteriorate for years.

"What can I say?" Henry John "Jack" Reed III, 55, asked Judge Jack I. Lesser when his tenant produced a mound of photographs, documents and testimony describing her eight-year battle to get the landlord to make basic repairs.

A superintendent of code inspections, Mr. Reed has been cited in recent weeks for more than 400 housing code violations on 17 rental properties he owns in Baltimore City. He is one of the central figures in an investigation by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke into how five city housing officials were allowed to own blighted rental properties with little or no enforcement action by their own agency.

Yesterday, Mr. Reed withdrew his claim that Goldie Sanders, 33, had fallen behind repeatedly in her $400 monthly rent on a rundown rowhouse at 2320 Jefferson St. and owed him nearly $3,000 -- extinguishing an eviction notice against the family.

The mother of two young boys argued that she didn't owe her landlord anything because his failure to fix her broken water main, cracked fuel tank and drafty windows had cost her hundreds of dollars in inflated utility bills over the years.

In relinquishing his claim to the back rent, Mr. Reed said he never knew about the sagging condition of his property.

"She's lived there for eight years, and I think that for the first five years I never received any complaints," he said. "And of all these recent complaints, I was never notified of all these deficiencies."

A city employee for almost three decades, Mr. Reed is paid $46,000 a year to enforce the housing code. The case yesterday in Rent Court underscored again the myriad conflicts city inspectors find themselves in when they try to enforce the law against their peers in the housing agency.

Wendell Hatcher -- a city inspector who did a court-ordered survey of the house a month ago, when Mr. Reed first tried to evict his tenant -- testified that he found more than 16 violations at the property. Further, Mr. Reed failed to fix some, and repaired others in a slipshod manner, he said.

Most important, Mr. Hatcher said, rats have been crawling into the house through holes in the ceiling and floors that Mr. Reed attempted to plug with spray foam after the city ordered him to seal them a month ago.

"That material will not stop rats," Mr. Hatcher testified.

"Are you telling me there's still rats in the house?" Judge Lesser asked.

"I just seen one this morning, running in the kitchen," said Ms. Sanders, producing medical records showing that her 12-year-old son had to be treated at Johns Hopkins Medical Center last summer after being attacked by a rat in his bedroom.

Mr. Hatcher, the city inspector, went on to testify that Mr. Reed also failed to fix the warped back door or drafty windows in an upstairs bedroom. But Mr. Hatcher checked off 14 other items that he said Mr. Reed had repaired correctly.

Yet witnesses for the tenant charged that Mr. Hatcher allowed his fellow inspector to get away with not correcting some violations and with making "jerry-rigged" repairs on others.

key concern were seven termite-eaten floor beams in the basement that an independent inspector hired by The Sun in December determined to be "substantially destroyed" and in danger of caving in.

Mr. Hatcher signed off on Mr. Reed's repairs to the beams, but two were left untouched and the rest were merely braced with new beams nailed to the old termite-eaten wood.

"I don't see how they passed anyone's inspection," testified Glenn Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association, who toured the house yesterday afternoon before going to court. "Whatever repairs were done were jerry-rigged. It was cosmetic work."

But Judge Lesser said he had no choice but to rely on Mr. Hatcher's expert testimony that the beams were fixed correctly.

Thursday night, the housing agency said it would order inspectors to review Mr. Hatcher's findings and reinspect the repairs Mr. Reed made. And the case is being referred to the state's attorney's office for possible prosecution on grounds that Mr. Reed "failed to make all the repairs in a timely manner," said housing spokesman Zack Germroth.

Mr. Hatcher refused to comment after the hearing. Mr. Reed said, "I have nothing to say."

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