Baltimore's Linwood fights 'bad neighbors' Residents, city combat disruptive tenants

September 01, 1996|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Evening calls drug dealers to the streets of the Baltimore Linwood neighborhood, where they ply their trade from dusk to dawn. Customers come and go, but violence is the dealers' constant companion. Gunfire often shatters the community's fragile sense of security.

"I'm tired of living in fear, tired of my children staying indoors on warm summer days because they're afraid to play outside," said Gayle DeLoach, a member of the community's Bad Neighbors Committee, which is trying to get troublemakers out of the area. "I want this neighborhood to return to the way it was just two or three years ago -- a quiet place where you could raise a family."

The Bad Neighbors Committee is working with city officials to evict criminals and disruptive tenants, and discipline negligent landlords.

The group, which was formed in June, is focusing on a one-mile area north of Patterson Park that includes 2,000 homes.

"We have identified 57 homes where the worst offenders live, and are working with the Housing Authority [of Baltimore City] and the police to take action against them," said state Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the committee.

Of the 57 locations, he said 11 are units that house people with Section 8 certificates, whose rent is partly subsidized by federal funds.

"This isn't an issue of Section 8 vs. non-Section 8, or of black folks vs. white folks. This is an issue of survival," said Robert "Turner" Carter, 62. He lives in a two-story rowhouse on Rose Street, a block from DeLoach's home in the 2500 block of E. Fairmount Ave., and is an active member of the Bad Neighbors Committee.

Carter has criticized neighbors who refuse to clean up their properties, confronted drug dealers who stand on his stoop to sell their wares and called police to the area countless times. He also has attended midnight cookouts in his neighborhood to drive away criminals and show them that residents have "had enough."

"I know it's dangerous, but it has to be done," said Carter, a soft-spoken man who walks with a cane. "I feel I have to fight for the seniors in the area. Many of them are too frightened to do anything."

During the past few years, several residents have fled the neighborhood, leaving behind boarded-up buildings. In one case, elderly woman was so desperate to move, neighbors say she left a rowhouse full of furniture.

"The problem is that there is a large number of landlords who don't care about their properties," Sfikas said. "They rent to the worst elements of society -- drug dealers and prostitutes -- who come in and bring the whole neighborhood down."

At locations where crimes were witnessed by neighbors, police officers have been asked to investigate and make arrests, Sfikas said.

"This is a perfect example of a community taking a zero-tolerance approach," said Maj. John E. Gavrilis, commander the Southeastern police district.

Police have taken action against residents in 36 of the homes, Gavrilis said. In some cases, police made arrests; in others, they conducted surveillance. Overall, police have made more than 60 arrests since January in the neighborhood for crimes including drug distribution, prostitution, assault and robbery.

Once criminal activity is documented by police, the Bad Neighbors Committee moves to evict the disruptive tenant, Sfikas said. None has been evicted so far.

"The Section 8 certificate holders are the easiest to deal with," said Daniel P. Henson III, city housing commissioner. "Under the new 'one strike and you're out' policy, they can be evicted without due process."

The policy, announced by President Clinton in March, compels public housing officials to evict tenants once they have evidence of criminal activity. They need not wait for the resident to be arrested or convicted.

In addition to calling for enforcement of the one-strike policy, the Bad Neighbors Committee is preparing to file civil lawsuits against disruptive tenants who are not Section 8 certificate holders to evict them.

"We'll be filing the suits under the nuisance abatement laws," DeLoach said. "The laws allow us to take action against any resident who disrupts the community."

This year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation giving community associations in Baltimore City the right to seek relief from tenants who commit any act that harms the value of nearby property and proves injurious to the welfare of neighboring residents.

"But our efforts won't end there," said Carter. "With the help of the housing authority, we're also going after slumlords."

In Baltimore, property owners -- not tenants -- are cited for housing code violations. The Bad Neighbors Committee hopes to force negligent landlords to clean up their properties and maintain them by frequently calling housing inspectors to the area to cite homeowners for housing code violations.

Cases involving such violations take "two to three years to move through the system," Sfikas said, "so we're also looking at reforming the current structure of the judicial system."

Sfikas said he and other state legislators from the area are drafting legislation that would move cases involving housing code violations out of criminal courts and into civil courts -- where the burden of proof is not as great.

For residents, such as DeLoach and Carter, who are trying to raise families and live in peace in a neighborhood troubled by violence, justice cannot come too quickly.

"We want our neighborhood back," Carter said. "We want the drug dealers and other criminals to know that we mean business. We want them out."

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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